At the midpoint of the 19th century, when Americans regularly traversed the West but—except for spotty locales in the Southwest and on the West Coast—had yet to settle it, the ancient world of the Indian-managed continent remained in place across much of the region. Judging by the accounts of those who witnessed it, the Indian West was something to see, rivaling the world’s great spectacles. No element of this surviving version of Western America amazed travelers so much as the staggering abundance of wildlife, and no animal surprised people used to the civilized conditions of the East or Europe with the same kind of shock value as the Western wolf.
Dr. Michael Steck, a newly appointed Indian agent traveling the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1850s, offers a glimpse of what represented the North American equivalent of the African Serengeti. Steck noted that anytime his traveling party got among the bison herds on the Great Plains, they encountered “immense numbers” of wolves. “A common thing to see [is] 50 at a sight,” he recalled. “In the daytime, never out of sight of them, [we] see hundreds in a day.” Famed wildlife painter John James Audubon, traveling up the Missouri River near the eastern border of future Montana a decade earlier than Steck, made a similar observation: “If ever there was a country where wolves are surpassingly abundant, it is the one we now are in.”
Today you could drive repeatedly across the southern Plains, where Steck wrote of seeing hundreds of wolves a day, or the northern Plains, where Audubon reported the most abundant wolf population he’d ever encountered, and never see a single wolf. Not one. Our erasure of them down through the years from 1850 to 1925 was that thorough. If lucky, you might hear an occasional wolf howl in New Mexico or Arizona. You can experience that siren call of Old America more readily in the northern Rocky Mountains. But in the 21st century the only place in the West you can still see primeval America—with that timeless set piece, the pursuit of bison and elk by packs of wolves loping through the sagebrush—is in Yellowstone National Park. There year-round crowds of wolf tourists line the park road through the Lamar Valley to witness the kinds of wild spectacles Audubon and Steck readily found in the 19th century West. Yellowstone’s opportunities are the result of truly heroic efforts on behalf of wolves across just the past two decades. Our modern facsimile of a Wolf West is that recent.
The larger story is that up until 1925 the American West had anciently been wolf country, had been so for 5 million years. Consider that a moment. Wolves were members of the biological family Canidae, their evolutionary origins in North America, and although some species migrated elsewhere and evolved into their present forms in Asia and Europe before returning to our continent, until the 1920s there was never a time when wolves were not the keystone predators throughout the West. Before humans arrived on the continent 15,000 or more years ago, wolves likely shaped life here more profoundly than any other mammal. Today, following a wildly successful Western war against wolves that spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, they are making a comeback in a West that had once ridded itself of them and remains decidedly of two minds about their return.
Like it or not, however, we will never again eradicate wolves from the West, for a simple reason. Today we understand the science behind a reality we made no effort to grasp in the early 1900s—that wolves had played a crucial role in the region for millions of years before man ever set foot in America. Western ecology revolved around wolves. Removing them was like tossing aside the transmission in one’s car and then expecting to motor down the highway just the same.
The Canidae family first appears in the North American fossil record in the Southwest roughly 5.3 million years ago. Like American-evolved wild horses, ancestral wolves became geographically cosmopolitan by crossing the land bridges from America to Eurasia. Other wolves remained, giving rise to lines that led to coyotes (Canis latrans) and to animals that became the Eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) and the intriguing, coyote-like red wolf (Canis rufus), whose range stretched from the Texas Gulf to New England. Colonizing ancestral wolves eventually evolved in their travels into various types of gray wolf (Canis lupus), which finally began to return—group after group—to their natal American homeland.
As the great beasts of the late Pleistocene—mammoths, mastodons, long-horned bison—migrated across the Bering land bridge to range among vast herds of horses and camels on the midlatitude plains of the West, gray wolves trailed along with them. One early type that returned to America was a very large wolf no one who has ever read about (or watched Game of Thrones) ever forgets. A quarter-million years ago the thick-bodied dire wolf (Canis dirus) trotted out onto the Pleistocene Great Plains, where it joined American wolves and coyotes in hunting and scavenging among one of the planet’s grand, thronging assemblages of wildlife.
Game of Thrones notwithstanding, dire wolves were not fated to survive the extinction crash that ended the American Pleistocene 10,000 years ago. But roughly 20,000 years ago several kinds of Canis lupus, our present-day gray wolf, began loping home to Western America. Once they joined the other American canids in the grand predator picnic of the Pleistocene, gray wolves decidedly made their presence felt. Big, 5- to 6-foot-long pack hunters weighing 80 to 130 pounds, gray wolves outmatched their long-lost relations, red wolves and coyotes, in both size and pack instinct. Once dire wolves disappeared from the continent, gray wolves were left as the swaggering big dogs on the block.
They appear to have migrated home to America in distinctive waves. A half-century ago American taxonomists designated a whopping 23 subspecies of Canis lupus. In 2012, though, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sought to come to terms with modern genetic research on wolves, it concluded that North America’s wolves sprang from two origins. Eastern wolves, red wolves and coyotes all represented American wolf evolution, animals that never left. Gray wolves, on the other hand, constituted several separate, unique waves of returning animals.
This taxonomic rethink has shrunk the number of gray wolf subspecies from the 23 of the 1940s to just four. The Arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos), found in the extreme north of the continent, was probably the last to return to America. The northwestern wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis), ranging from the Montana Rockies northward to Alaska, was likely another late arrival from Asia. The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), a small gray species of Mexico and the American Southwest, may have led the migrations home. But the wolf that occupied more of the continent than any other, extending from the Pacific across the Great Plains on to the western Great Lakes and northward through much of the eastern half of Canada, was Canis lupus nubilus. This was the famed “buffalo wolf,” “loafer” or “white wolf of the plains” of so much Western history and lore.
All these gray wolves arrived in time for one of the grandest predator buffets in world history. Before the Pleistocene ended, gray wolves joined short-faced bears, saber-toothed tigers, scimitar cats, American cheetahs, steppe lions and running hyenas to chase down camels, sloths, horses, long-horned bison and perhaps mammoth calves in a Serengeti-like world that now seems like science fiction. When an extinction event took out all the giants, the reconstituted Western bestiary bequeathed to Western gray wolves their prominent place in American ecology. With buffalo the only Western grazer still standing after the extinctions, bison numbers skyrocketed to between 20 and 30 million animals. Some 1.5 to 2 million wolves served as their primary predators in this new order. As Western trader-explorer-author Josiah Gregg put it in the 1840s, “Although the buffalo is the largest, he has by no means the control among the prairie animals; the scepter of authority has been lodged with the large gray wolf.”
Since the mid-1990s Yellowstone National Park has provided a window into primeval predator/prey ecology. There research has confirmed the striking significance of wolves as keystone predators. Wolves apparently influenced continental ecology in ways that rippled through nature, affecting not only populations of prey species but also other predators and scavengers, even down to the kinds of vegetation (like aspen trees) found in a particular landscape. With gray wolves present, coyote populations may drop by 50 percent, while fox numbers rise. Wolf predation exerts strong evolutionary pressures on the behaviors and even habitat selections of wolf prey species. Such was the “scepter of authority” the gray wolf wielded and humans unthinkingly ripped from the Western landscape a century ago.
When early Western diarists like Meriwether Lewis, George Catlin and John James Audubon first encountered wolves on the Great Plains, they referred to them as the “shepherds” of the buffalo herds. Josiah Gregg observed of wolves that although there were “immense numbers of them upon the prairies,” their presence in the landscape was often dependent on bison. Indian portraitist Catlin crisscrossed much of the West in the early 1830s. One of his observations about buffalo wolf, or white wolf, hunts was how dearly a wolf pack often won a meal. Even an old, sick or disabled buffalo was “a huge and furious animal” and would often deal “death by wholesale to his canine assailants, which he is tossing into the air or stamping to death under his feet.” Catlin’s painting Buffalo Hunt: White Wolves Attacking Buffalo Bull shows such a scene, wherein an aging bull holds off a wolf pack with such resolution that “his eyes were entirely eaten out of his head—the grizzle of his nose was mostly gone—his tongue was half eaten off, and the skin and flesh of his legs torn almost literally into strings.” Yet even with the bull in that condition, numerous wolves “had been crushed to death by the feet or horns of the bull.”
William Clark observed, and Lewis recorded, the most common wolf-hunting technique in April 1805, as their expedition ascended the Missouri through the Dakotas. “Capt. Clark informed me,” Lewis wrote, “that he saw a large drove of buffaloe [sic] pursued by wolves today, that they at length caught a calf which was unable to keep up with the herd.” An old Pawnee adage held that wolves ran down and devoured four of every 10 bison calves, an equation that kept both species stable across millennia.
One trait many observers noted when first encountering Western wolves was how docile they appeared. In that wolf country par excellence along the Missouri, Audubon marveled how wolves would lie on the banks as the steamboat passed, yawning like dogs at passersby. Clark was able to approach close enough on land to impulsively stab one dead with his bayonet. When Audubon arrived at Fort Union, at the confluence of the Yellowstone, he was met by American Fur Co. trader Alexander Culbertson, whose chief hobby when boredom set in was running down wolves on his Indian pony. As Audubon’s companion Edward Harris described it, with wolves in constant view, the trader offered them a demonstration.
“Mr. Culbertson…,” wrote Harris, “started his beautiful Blackfoot pied mare at full speed, when within a half-mile of the wolf, who turned and galloped off leisurely until Mr. C. was within two or three hundred yards of him, when he started off at the top of his speed.” Within the time it took Harris to scribble his account, Culbertson was back at the post with the wolf draped across his horse in front of the saddle, shot through the lungs and shoulders as the trader had chased him at breakneck speed across the prairie. It was an impressive performance, no doubt, so long as you hadn’t experienced it from the perspective of the wolf.
Long centuries of benign interaction with the Plains Indians had taught Western wolves not to fear humans. Despite Old World folklore and Hollywood hype, except in the rare rabies case wolves were not aggressive toward people. In fact, it was a Western trope that both wolves and coyotes were fearful around humans. While scornful of canine cowardice, early observers often remarked on how trusting wolves seemed, trotting before approaching horses like dogs or watching curiously as travelers passed within feet.
But as more and more people arrived in the West, most armed and many inclined to shoot at any wolf they saw, wolves learned to keep their distance. Rifle fire was an initial and largely casual cause of wolf mortality, but it was merely a hint of killing techniques employed in rapid succession across the 19th century. With the launch of the Western frontier by an animal products industry, followed by the arrival of thousands of overland migrants, what should have been canine good times actually ushered in the end game for the Wolf West.
Made from the seed of an East Indian fruit tree, strychnine poison was in commercial production in the East as early as 1820. To Western travelers it represented a cheap, unregulated and lethal means of collecting animal pelts. In an age inured to animal slaughter it was a horrifying killer. Within minutes a white tablet gulped down from a baited carcass launched the quarry into waves of convulsive cramping. Death from asphyxia followed, but not before the poison had wrenched the body into a signature death pose—a corpse with a sharply arched spine and frazzled tail, as if the animal had been electrocuted. Baited buffalo or horse carcasses surrounded by strychnine victims—poisoned wolves, coyotes, bears, eagles, ravens and magpies in a wide arc—became an all too common sight on the prairie.
For a couple of decades after the Civil War, as U.S. Indian policy herded the tribes onto reservations and the market hunt reaped the most devastating slaughter of wildlife in world history, wolves continued to thrive despite strychnine and pelt hunters. But with most of their historic prey animals in decline, wolves turned to domesticated cattle and sheep, the property of ranchers who would brook no losses to predators. Pegged as hateful symbols of an untamed America, wolves from the 1880s through the 1920s became the targets of a war of eradication, one stockmen launched to convert the ancient wilderness they’d acquired into a money-making pasture for cows, sheep and the market.
First bounty hunters and then government field agents shot, roped, trapped, gassed, stomped and strangled wolves. They hung wolves from trees like human avatar outlaws. Montana, whose territorial government sometimes used up two-thirds of its annual budget in the war against predators, passed a state law in 1905 that instructed the state veterinarian to secure a population of wolves, coyotes and their pups, inject them with sarcoptic mange and then release them throughout the state to spread the wasting disease. In the Texas Panhandle through the 1890s such noted wolfers as Jack Abernathy and Allen Stagg each captured or killed dozens of wolves a year, while hands of the XIT Ranch tolled more than 200 during the period. Between 1883 and 1927 Montana paid bounties on a staggering 111,545 wolves and 886,367 coyotes. Subsidizing both ranchers and wolfers, the state paid bounties on 23,575 wolves in 1899 alone. Under such pressure wolf populations declined so dramatically that in 1920 Montana paid bounties on only 17 gray wolves.
Field agents from a federal division called the Biological Survey, which Congress charged and funded in 1914 with an official predator-killing mission, slammed the door on the wolf in a few short years. By 1925, with agents distributing 3.5 million strychnine baits across the West annually, ancient America’s Wolf West had collapsed. Its demise made good sense to ranchers, as well as agents from the Biological Survey and state fish and wildlife agencies, all of whom were convinced that in the absence of wolves sport hunters would become the keystone predators and harvest surplus game. Everyone from average Americans to Audubon Society officials cheered when wolves vanished from national parks like Yellowstone and hunters killed the last few pitiable individuals.
So the 1920s saw the demise of the wolves in the West. Montana’s last wolf was called Snowdrift. South Dakota’s sole survivor was the Custer Wolf, charged with livestock depredations a T. rex couldn’t have pulled off. Individuals named Rags, Whitey and Lefty were Colorado’s last. One final, pathetic story from that state relates the saga of a female wolf named Three-Toes, so desperate to find a mate on the wolfless prairie that she mated with a ranch collie before Biological Survey agents killed her collie paramour, all their hybrid pups and, finally and mercifully, her.
In a grand irony of the Wolf West, these last individuals died in the very decade ecologists Joseph Grinnell, E. Raymond Hall and Aldo Leopold were discovering the indispensable role wolves actually played in keeping nature functioning properly. Insights about predators, like the ones Leopold offered up in his 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac, eventually led to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and to wolf recovery plans the Fish and Wildlife Service (successor to the Biological Survey) drew up in its wake. So 70 years after Snowdrift and Three-Toes died, armed with reams more science and a deeper cultural appreciation of predators, we set about correcting what most Americans by then believed to have been a mistake.
Re-creation of the Wolf West hasn’t happened yet. The best success so far has been in the northern Rockies, where more than 1,500 gray wolves roam the mountains, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has turned over management to the states, whose response has been to create wolf-hunting seasons in places like Idaho and Montana to placate sport hunters convinced that wolves are the reason they didn’t get their elk. Reintroduction of Mexican wolves to the Southwest has been far less successful, although a recovery rule adopted in 2015 will allow an increase to some 325 wolves across an expanded range from the California border to the Texas line. But wolves remain absent from the Great Plains states, as well as Colorado and Utah, where The Salt Lake Tribune recently quoted one skeptical member of a wildlife advisory board: “People want to use the wolf as the silver bullet to kill the culture of the West. There is no need to have them here other than those political reasons.”
The truth, of course, is that the West is and always has been a mix of many cultures. And where economics was once the primary driver of politics, in the case of America’s charismatic predators it’s actually science that now drives politics. Understanding such dynamics won’t make the debate go away, but it may help explain why a Wolf West that’s 5 million years old is with us once again. WW
Dan Flores writes books about the environmental West and is a frequent contributor to Wild West. His latest books are Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History (2016) and American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, (2016).