Persecution and Hunting
Wolves, Wild Dogs and Foxes: Page 2 Unlike the Red Wolf, Gray Wolves traveled in large packs in the Great Plains of the West. Many of the wolves painted by George Catlin, the great 19th-century artist of Native Americans and wildlife of the Plains, were beige or pure white, as are many of the wolves of the grasslands of northern Canada. Early hunters killed wolves for their pelts by trapping, poisoning and shooting. Many were used for target practice in the open country. When livestock ranchers took over huge tracts of land in the West, the Gray Wolf became a target for total extermination. Cowboys often roped wolves and dragged them to their deaths across rough ground (McIntyre 1995). Federal trappers used even more brutal killing methods (McIntyre 1995).
James Josiah Webb, who wrote a memoir of events in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, area from 1844 to 1861, recounted that two men conducted a wolf-killing operation by spreading strychnine bait placed in chunks of bison meat around the prairie. The number of wolves that once inhabited the region was so dense that they found 64 dead wolves within 1.5 miles of their camp in a single day after a poisoning; they bragged that they earned $4,000, an enormous sum in those days, by selling wolf pelts (McIntyre 1995).
As wolves were exterminated in one state or territory after another, a few of these intelligent animals managed to escape traps, guns and poison, earning the label of "outlaws." These wolves ranged alone or in small packs, and in the last days of the western wolf, some trappers spent months or years in determined pursuit of them. The ability of these wolves to elude their persecutors were truly amazing. One of the most famous such cases was described by Ernest Thompson Seton, an English artist and writer, in Wild Animals I Have Known (1899). Based on fact and documented by photographs, it concerned Lobo, an enormous wolf, called "The King" by Mexican residents who lived near a huge cattle ranch in northern New Mexico. For many years in the 1890s, Lobo led a pack of five wolves. He had a distinctive, deep howl that ranchmen recognized among the howls of the other wolves. He was by far the largest wolf in the pack and exceeded the size of other wolves in the region. Whereas most wolf paws measured 4 3/4 inches, Lobo's were 5 1/2 inches long. His mate, whom the Mexicans called Blanca, was a large, magnificent white wolf.
These wolves, like many others of the West during this period, had been deprived of their natural prey, White-tailed and Mule Deer and Elk, which had been hunted out by settlers and replaced with livestock. The wolves turned to livestock as the only large prey available and, in doing so, became the target of ranchers' wrath. Western ranchers, like many livestock owners in Europe, believed that they should be able to release cattle to roam free without herding them into shelter at night. This situation had existed in Western Europe after large predators were eliminated from all but the most remote areas. In their new ranches, allocated to them by the government, ranchers sought to recreate the European model. This required the destruction of large predators.
Lobo and his pack refused to eat dead animals that they encountered, apparently to avoid poison, and survived on calves and sheep that they killed themselves. When Lobo and his pack killed a cow, ranchers immediately put poison in the carcass. But when the wolves returned the next day to eat, they somehow knew which parts of the carcass were poisoned, and pulled out the poisoned chunks, throwing them aside, eating only the unpoisoned portions. Lobo also avoided the traps set for him and hid from hunters on horseback who pursued him. Trappers came from great distances to claim the high bounty on Lobo, but all failed to kill him. Ernest Thompson Seton decided to try to kill Lobo himself for the $1,000 bounty. He scattered poisoned baits, covering the human scent with other odors, and the following day, found that one after another of the baits was gone. Assuming that he would come upon the body of Lobo, he was surprised to find his five baits in a pile. Lobo had picked them up, one after another without eating them, and left them as a message to Seton. Seton obtained special steel jaw leghold wolf traps and set them in concealed places in Lobo's territory. When he came out to check the traps, he found Lobo's tracks leading from trap to trap. The canny wolf had discovered each of the traps during the night, scratching earth away to reveal the chain and trap, continuing from trap to trap until he encountered one in the center of the trail. Lobo then retraced his steps, placing each paw exactly in its old track until he found no more traps, using his paw to flip stones and earth clods to spring every trap.
Seton finally succeeded in trapping Blanca by setting hidden traps among parts of a cow carcass and covering the area with Coyote scent. Lobo avoided the traps, but Blanca made a fatal error and blundered into one. When Seton and the others found her dragging the heavy trap, she turned to fight, howling across the canyon. Lobo howled back, while Seton and the others brutally killed her. Throwing lassos over her neck and holding the ends of the ropes, they galloped horses in opposite directions until her body was torn apart. When he wrote of the event years later, Seton (1899) called the killing a tragedy. They heard the howls of Lobo for days afterward. Seton described it as having "an unmistakable note of sorrow in it, now. It was no longer the loud, defiant howl, but a long, plaintive wail." When they found Lobo's tracks at the spot where Blanca had been killed, Seton reflected, "Now, indeed I truly know that Blanca was his mate."
Soon afterward, Lobo came near the ranch house. His tracks showed that he had galloped about in a reckless manner before he blundered into a trap set in a pasture. He was able to pull out of it, but Seton then set 130 steel jaw leghold wolf traps in groups of four on every trail leading into Lobo's home canyon, and dragged Blanca's body around the area to leave her scent. He even removed one of her paws, with which he made a line of tracks on the soil covering each trap. Within days, Lobo was caught with all four legs in a trap set, having followed Blanca's scent and forgetting all caution. When Seton approached the trapped wolf, Lobo managed to stand, in spite of severe injuries, and howled his deep call, but no members of his pack responded. Seton and others wrapped ropes around his neck, put a stick in his mouth and lashed his jaws closed. His feet were tied, and when he was placed on Seton's horse, he refused to look at any of his captors. At the ranch, Seton placed a collar around his neck, secured him to the pasture with a strong chain, and Lobo lay calmly, gazing across the prairie.
When Seton came out the next morning, Lobo was dead. On measuring his body, Seton found that Lobo weighed 150 pounds and was 3 feet tall at the shoulder. He was one of the largest wolves ever trapped in the Southwest. The largest Gray Wolves are native to northern Canada and Alaska and weigh up to 176 pounds, but most wolves of the Southwest were far smaller and lighter (Nowak 1991). Scientists who measured the skulls of the pair estimated that Lobo was 4 to 5 years old when he was killed, and Blanca was 7 (McIntyre 1995). Photos of Lobo and Blanca caught in traps are reproduced in Rick McIntyre's 1995 book, War Against the Wolf. Lobo and Blanca were exceptional specimens, and their slaughter represented an irreplaceable genetic loss. The treatment they received will remain a blot on human "kind." Lobo was killed on January 31, 1894, near Currumpaw, and his pelt is kept at the Ernest Thompson Seton Memorial Library and Museum at the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico (McIntyre 1995). This experience changed Seton's attitude, and he expressed strong feelings of guilt in his description of his treatment of these wolves.
Government programs did not reflect Seton's newfound sympathy for wolves. In fact, predator-control programs intensified in the early years of the 20th century. Ranchers convinced the federal government to launch an all-out attack on predators, primarily wolves. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Biological Survey used poisons and traps to kill adult animals and many cruel methods to kill the pups in dens in their efforts to try to exterminate the wolf. In 1907 alone, the Forest Service killed more than 1,800 Gray Wolves and 23,000 Coyotes, among other animals (Laycock 1990). After the US Congress authorized the first substantial appropriation for hiring government hunters in 1915, federal wolf-control programs achieved an unprecedented level. Hundreds of agents combed the most remote wildernesses, spreading poison even where no cattle or livestock grazed. A point system was established; the highest number of points, 15, was accorded for killing a Mountain Lion or a Gray Wolf (Laycock 1990). Hired hunters earning high point totals made the Honor Roll, while others might be fired; they were expected to kill virtually every predator in their assigned area (Laycock 1990).
Within a few decades, many thousands of Gray Wolves had been killed. They were eliminated from more than 95 percent of their range in the lower 48 states by the 1930s (Robbins 1997). A few wolves, using their intelligence and survival senses, managed, like Lobo and his pack, to survive somewhat longer, but they were killed in the end. The Custer Wolf, a large female also known as "Old Three-Toes" because she had lost a toe in a steel jaw leghold trap set by a government trapper, became as infamous as Lobo and Blanca. After her mate and pups were killed, the Custer Wolf survived until caught in a trap that became snagged on rocks (McIntyre 1995).
Vernon Bailey, a biologist with the US Biological Survey, the government agency that later became the Fish and Wildlife Service, conducted wildlife and plant studies as well as predator-control programs. He noted early in the century that the Biological Survey had conducted "the most systematic and successful war on these pests ever undertaken" (McIntyre 1995). The loss of virtually all wolves in the vast area encompassing the lower 48 states may be the most devastating predator-control campaign in history.
If not for the fact that the predator-control programs of the territorial and provincial governments of Alaska and Canada did not succeed in totally exterminating the wolf, the species might be extinct on the continent. Although wolves were persecuted and trapped for their fur in the latter areas, they survived in the far north and in the eastern forests of Ontario and Quebec and have now reoccupied most of their original range in Canada.
The Gray Wolf is able to adapt to a wide variety of habitats and climates, whether searing deserts, shrublands, grasslands, forests of all types, frozen tundra or even marshlands. It had the largest range of any terrestrial mammal on Earth, other than humans (Nowak 1999). Wolves had lived for thousands of years on the continent, their environment and prey altering drastically through the Ice Ages, needing only the presence of large prey to survive. Wolf intelligence, in fact, exceeds that of the domestic dog, which has a brain 31 percent smaller (Busch 1995). In spite of the wolf’s survival abilities, the fragmentation of packs by predator-control agents prevented them from hunting normally and hastened their disappearance soon after control methods began. This need to live in a pack for hunting and companionship made the species vulnerable to extermination. When persecuted, Gray Wolves do not desert one another, and many cases have been documented of wolves sacrificing their lives in an effort to save a pack mate. This altruistic trait also contributed to their extermination. The traits that humans most admire about domestic dogs were inherited from the wolf--loyalty, intelligence, playfulness and affection. Wolf pups were first domesticated by hunter gatherers tens of thousands of years ago, and even after selective breeding by humans in the intervening centuries, they still retain many of the wolf's best qualities.
Wolf packs have a lead pair, known to biologists as the alpha male and female, who are the only members of the pack that produce cubs. They mate for life, and dominate other wolves in the pack. They are usually the fittest and largest. Other pack members challenge for leadership, which can result in a change in the alpha pair. The entire pack, which includes adult females and males and pups from the previous year's litter, cares for the pups, ensuring that the strongest pass on their genes to future generations. Young unmated females and males "baby-sit" the pups when the alpha pair and the rest of the pack are out hunting. When the pups are about six weeks old, their baby-sitters spend hours with them in wrestling matches, games of tag and other rambunctious activities. Within the pack, wolves are extremely friendly and devoted to one another, barking and yipping with delight on meeting, and before and after hunts. They howl at night, communicating with other wolf packs which howl back. Bonds between wolves, especially mated pairs, are very strong, as illustrated by the saga of Lobo and Blanca, and many other cases of wolves in apparent mourning for lost mates have been documented. For many days, one male Mexican wolf, howling plaintively, followed a government trapper who had killed the wolf’s mate and carried off her pelt.
Other species of canids show similar behavior. The African Wild Dog (Lycaeon pictus), a highly endangered wild canid, hunts on the African plains in even larger packs than Gray Wolves, numbering up to 26 animals, yet only one female in the pack has pups. The alpha female might have 16 pups, and if another female in the pack has a litter, the alpha female will steal the cubs and nurse them, even if the litter size reaches 20 or more. Fewer than 5,000 of these beautiful animals, sometimes called Painted Wolves because of their black-and-yellow spotted coats, remain in the wild, and they are in steep decline (Nowak 1991). In Zimbabwe, where there are only about 300 to 500 animals, they are still persecuted by farmers. Even in national parks, they often lose prey when chased off by Spotted Hyenas or Lions.
The ecology of the Gray Wolf has been studied since the 1940s, revealing it to be completely different from the prejudicial folklore of Europe. Adolph Murie, one of America's greatest biologists, conducted studies of wolves in Mount McKinley (now known as Denali) National Park, where they were neither persecuted nor hunted. In his study, The Wolves of Mount McKinley (Murie 1944), he revealed: "It appears that wolves prey mainly on the weak classes of sheep, that is, the old, the diseased, and the young in their first year. Such predation would seem to benefit the species over a long period of time and indicates a normal prey-predator adjustment in Mount McKinley National Park." By examining the carcasses of Caribou and other mammals killed by wolves in the park, Dr. Murie found that most were in poor physical condition. Wolf packs test their prey by isolating and then chasing individual animals to detect weaknesses, and the majority of their chases do not result in a kill.
In spite of more than 50 years of biological studies of wolves that have shown them to be a positive rather than a negative influence on their prey, there are still many who disagree. Predator-control programs have been authorized in Alaska, Canada and parts of Eurasia in misguided attempts to protect deer, Elk, Moose, American Bison and Caribou. A trophy hunting organization, Safari Club International, paid the British Columbia government to kill wolves in that province (Williams 1991). The real motivation for these eradication programs is often to promote artificial increases in populations of ungulates, such as Moose, Caribou and deer, for sport hunting.
Over the ages, prey species of wolves have evolved to survive their attacks by becoming faster and stronger. The largest and healthiest deer on the North American continent have been found in areas where wolves are resident predators. The number of wolves in a pack varies according to the size of the prey: packs of up to 15 are needed to bring down bison, while packs of seven or fewer hunt deer (Nowak 1999). Wolves hunting large prey run in shifts, with tired members of the pack replaced by rested wolves. They will sometimes need to run for many miles after Caribou, Moose, American Bison or deer before they succeed in singling out one they are able to bring down; an average of only one in 10 chases is successful. Native Americans have always been aware of the important relationship between the wolf and its prey. The Keewatin Inuits have an ancient saying: "The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong" (Busch 1995). The healthiest members of each prey species are able to fend off wolf packs, and only in unusual circumstances can wolves kill them. For the vast majority of prey species, wolves sense weakness in their prey, evidenced by body stance, uncoordinated movements, the smell of wounds or, most often, by their lack of endurance when being chased (McIntyre 1995).
When wolves are hunted out of an area with deer and other ungulates, the latter animals often increase in numbers to such great levels that they strip their habitat of vegetation. The overpopulation of White-tailed Deer in many parts of the northeastern United States, especially in suburban locations, has resulted from a lack of natural predators. Their absence has created a major imbalance in eastern forest ecosystems, where they have become so numerous that they consume young trees and new growth on mature trees.