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Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior
Wolfology Item # 1318
v. 46, no. 1 (Spring 1996)

Click on the journal title (above) for information on acquiring the complete article
Shark of the Plains: Early Western Encounters with Wolves
Bruce Hampton
At the end of the nineteenth century, North Dakota's Ben Corbin, a former bounty hunter who claimed to have killed more wolves than any man alive, summed up a pervasive view throughout the West: "The wolf is the enemy of civilization," he declared, "and I want to exterminate him."
Corbin's statement has long been considered the traditional sentiment of most westerners towards wolves, but earlier in the region's history frontiersmen -- explorers, naturalists, soldiers, missionaries, fur traders, and trappers -- enjoyed a far less contentious relationship with the predator. Like Native Americans with whom they often lived, these early travelers generally accepted wolves within the membership of New World fauna. The animals could be bothersome, but for the most part, frontiersmen tolerated their presence. There were good reasons why this was so. Unlike settlers who would follow, early westerners were usually on the move, possessed few or no domestic livestock, and thus were only occasionally in conflict with wolves. But even more important, as they ventured into the vast grasslands of the continent they encountered such an abundance of wild animals -- buffalo, antelope, mountain sheep, elk, and deer -- that most of them did not consider wolves competitors....
The earliest account of western wolf abundance occurred when Coronado passed through present-day Kansas in 1541, the expedition chronicler reporting "very great numbers of wolves on these plains, which go around with the cows [buffalo]." Two hundred years later, near what is now the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, Anthony Hendry, the first white man to explore central Alberta, recorded in his diary: "Wolves without number."....
It was not until Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River in 1805, however, that anyone described wolves in greater detail. Near the mouth of Montana's Sun River, Lewis recorded that the expedition was serenaded by "vast assemblages" of wolves "howling around us and lolling about in the plains in view at the distance of two or three hundred yards." Along the Yellowstone River, Clark was so overwhelmed by the abundance of wolves and other animals that he refused to estimate their number, fearing that readers would dismiss his observations as simply "incredible."....
A few years later in 1810 Englishman John Bradbury visited the upper Missouri River and remarked that wolves "were almost constantly in sight." In 1831 in the same vicinity the artist George Catlin reported seeing as many as fifty to sixty wolves at a time. Prince Maximilian followed on Catlin's heels two years later, finding wolves "abundant" from western Pennsylvania to the headwaters of the Missouri River. Ten years after Maximilian, Lansford Warren Hastings, one of the first travelers on the Oregon Trail...warned those following him that they should expect to pass "many hundreds of them" each day....
As evidence of wolf abundance, these accounts must be viewed with caution. Few observers bothered to distinguish coyotes from wolves -- all were "wolves." Also both animals often followed travelers for great distances, vanishing, then reappearing from time to time, and thus may have only seemed more plentiful. Despite these caveats, coyotes and wolves appear to have been relatively common features of the West's fauna -- coyotes probably more so, although the dominance of wolves over coyotes is believed to have kept the latter less numerous and widespread than today. Based upon maximum wolf densities known today where prey is abundant, the central continent's rich prairie grasslands may have supported as many as two hundred thousand wolves -- half of the continent's total wolf population and the greatest concentration of the predators anywhere in the world....
Frontiersmen soon developed their own jargon to distinguish coyotes from wolves. A coyote became a "prairie jackal," "brush wolf," "small prairie wolf," or "medicine wolf," after a traditional Indian name for the animal. The wolf was called "big prairie wolf," "buffalo wolf," or "loafer," so named because wolves were often seen resting after gorging on a kill. In the Southwest the wolf was known as "lobo."
Before long, observers began to distinguish among wolves themselves. Those found on the prairies were larger than eastern wolves, although not so big as those farther north in Canada, referred to as "timber" wolves. Individual animals showed so much variation in size that some observers believed color a better gauge. By most accounts, black wolves were relatively rare in colonial America, while gray and, to a lesser extent, white or light-colored wolves predominated. As people traveled west to the Mississippi valley, some claimed they saw more black wolves. In 1833 in eastern Kansas, Maximilian observed so many black and gray wolves, and so few white ones, that he became convinced they were wholly different species. Other travelers, however, reported just the opposite. This confusion was reflected in the subspecies name naturalist Thomas Say bestowed on the first scientific specimen of a plains wolf taken in 1823 in Nebraska -- nubilis, derived from the Latin word nubes, meaning cloudlike, obscure, or indefinite in origin. Elliott Coues settled the debate when he correctly proclaimed in 1867 that wolf colors were simply "remarkable variations" and had nothing to do with speciation....
Another notable wolf characteristic frontiersmen recorded was fearlessness. Near the Judith River, a trbutary of the upper Missouri, Lewis and Clark came upon a "great many wolves" feasting on dead buffalo. The wolves "were fat and extremely gentle," recorded Clark, enough for him to approach closely and kill one with a bayonet. Even in that day and age, Clark's experience may have been exceptional, but it suggests how unthreatening some wolves then found humans. Native Americans who inhabited the upper Missouri...killed either no wolves or relatively few....Wolf behavior changed after the animals learned to fear firearms, but until that time they often were unusually bold.
Having successfully scavenged behind nomadic tribes for millenia, wolves readily trailed the newcomers. They could always be counted on to clean up the remains of game that hunters shot for food, particularly once they learned that the sound of a gun often announced a meal. Sometimes a wolf appeared too quickly to please hunters, gaining the sobriquet "shark of the plains." Lewis and Clark were frequently annoyed when they returned to the site of a kill to retrieve meat and found that wolves had expropriated the remainder. At one buffalo carcass they found twenty-seven wolves who had left nothing but bones. Wolves so quickly discovered dead animals that the expedition's hunters learned to shoot only those they could retrieve immediately....
Wolves also hung about camps, occasionally attacked a party's horses and mules, and generally made a nuisance of themselves....Near Edmonton, Alberta, in 1847 the artist Paul Kane reported that eight hundred horses belonging to trappers in the area never strayed far during winter because "their only safety from their great enemies, the wolves, is remaining near the habitations of man." If Kane had any doubts that this was  true, they were soon dispelled when one day he hobbled his horse, briefly left it alone, and returned to find "two wolves making a dead set at my poor horse, who was trembling with fear. One of them was in the act of springing at him...I instantly levelled my double-barrelled gun and killed both, one after the other."
....Some wolves were so daring that they came directly into camps. During the 1840s traveler Rufus Sage recorded that wolves "proved a constant source of annoyance," running off with kettles, pans, and other camp paraphernalia. One "piratical pest" even made off with Sage's fur hat from his head while he was asleep. In another instance, a companion, using his prized leather saddle as a pillow, awoke to find a wolf had filched the saddle during the night. After "gently drawing it from beneath the head of the unconscious sleeper," said Sage, the wolf "bore off his prize to devour it at his leisure." Sage assumed that such wolves were hungry, but curiosity may have been a better explanation. Regardless, wolves gained a reputation for mischief. When Horace Greeley, famed editor of the New York Tribune, traveled across the West in the 1860s, he described the wolf as an opportunistic "scoundrel," possessing a brazen cunning of "imposing caliber." To anyone unfamiliar with the West, declared Greeley, it was impossible to "realize the impudence of these prairie-lawyers."
Such boldness sometimes cost wolves their lives, although ammunition was in such short supply on the early frontier that most people refused to waste it on an animal they did not consider dangerous or of little value for fur or food. No one shot them, said Oregon Trail traveler Lansford Hastings, because their skins "are entirely worthless." When frontiersmen had nothing else to eat, however, they turned to wolves. While wintering on the Oregon coast in 1806, Lewis and Clark reported their not infrequent reliance on the flesh of dog and wolf. This may not have been as onerous as it sounds; many frontiersmen learned from Indians to eat dog and found it quite palatable. In 1832 near present-day Salmon, Idaho, several American Fur Company trappers recorded that "we killed a grey wolf which was fat, and made us a tolerable supper."....
....Although frontiersmen are wolves as a last resort, such was not the case when wolves turned to humans for food. Numerous records indicate that the predators readily fed on human corpses. Maximilian traveled west during the 1830s in time to witness the results of a devastating smallpox pandemic among Native Americans. "The prairie all around is a vast field of death covered with unburied corpses," most of which Maximilian noted ended up as food for wolves.
Thirty years later, the penchant of wolves for human cadavers caused difficulty for the United States Army. Soldiers assigned to Fort Kearney in central Nebraska reported that they had to bury their dead in deep holes, place heavy planks over the coffins, and then haul large stones to fill the graves in order to prevent wolves from disinterring the corpses. Without these precautions, they said, wolves almost invariably exhumed the dead.
....Wolves proved so deft at finding exposed or buried cadavers that many frontiersmen possessed a grim fatalism about the fact. In the mid-1840s, Lieutenant J.W.Abert was returning home from an exploration of the Southwest when one of his men grew ill and died during a snowstorm in eastern Colorado. Unable to bury the victim, Abert simply left him, declaring it was the man's "destiny to leave his bones on the desert prairies, where wolves howl his requiem."
Abert was not the first or last frontiersman to associate death with the howl of a wolf. Most listeners found the low, mournful quality of the sound unsettling. In fact the wolf's voice appears to have contributed greatly to many people's fear and dislike of the animal.
"I know of nothing so sad as the howling of wolves," wrote Montana author James Willard Schultz. "They chillingly voice deep, hopeless despair." A howl possessed a quality "that made even the most lighthearted and careless of men pause and listen." Many persons, said Schultz, "could not bear the sound." One of those was Frances Carrington, wife of the commander of Wyoming's Fort Phil Kearny during the 1860s, who claimed she often went sleepless at night due to the "frightening" and "hideous" constant howling of wolves outside the fort.
....Not everyone heard it that way. George Catlin thought that the soft and plaintive howl of a wolf was the sound of a "lonesome" animal who had become "lost in the too beautiful quiet and stillness about him." Even James Schultz admitted that "to the true lover of nature it had a peculiar -- if perhaps undefinable -- charm.: Some listeners actually praised the sound. Maximilian was camped one night in 1833 along the Missouri River when a dozen wolves appeared on the opposite shore and "entertained us with a concert of their sweet voices." perhaps the most generous tribute came from Thomas Farnham, an early traveler to the Northwest. It is remarkable, Farnham said, to realize that every morning precisely at daybreak, thousands upon thousands of wolves raise their voices in a symphony of sound that "swells along the vast plains of Texas to the sources of the Mississippi and from Missouri to the depths of the Rocky Mountains."
Although wolves brazenly hung around camps, closely followed travelers,  swiftly attacked and killed unprotected stock, and eagerly disinterred and fed upon human corpses, most frontiersmen admitted that they stopped short of killing people.
After many years trapping in the Rocky Mountains during the early 1800s, Osborne Russell maintained that wolves "are not ferocious towards man and will run at sight of him." Russell's contemporary, Canadian trapper Ross Cox, was known for his many exaggerated tales, casting himself in death-defying escapes from venomous rattlesnakes to flesh-eating eagles. Yet in a candid moment Cox asserted that, unlike European wolves, "an American wolf, except forced by desperation, will seldom, or ever, attack a human being." When Scotsman Isaac Cowie arrived in Canada to become a fur trapper, he greatly feared attack by wolves. But he soon learned that "instead of men being afraid of wolves, the wolves were afraid of men." Even when near starvation, Cowie insisted, "wolves never plucked up courage to attack people."
....Despite these and other steadfast disavowals of wolf attack, people who had little or no experience with the predators remained unconvinced. Why should a wolf -- powerful and capable of killing prey many times its size -- not kill humans?
Fear of attack was no small matter to those persuaded of the animal's murderous intentions. During the mid-1800s in southeastern Wyoming, John Steele was traveling alone when a pack of wolves began following him. As darkness fell, the animals came ever nearer. Unnerved, Steele shot the closest ones, then heard "awful sounds" that he identified as the dead wolves being "devoured" by their brethren. When Steele observed "their glaring eyes and saw how easily they might spring upon me, I realized, that like David, there was but a step between me and death." After a sleepless night, which Steele described as nothing short of "terrible," by morning the animals had vanished.
As nineteenth-century wolf stories go, Steele's tale -- even his conviction of being at death's door -- is more believable than most. Whenever wolves followed travelers who were alone and unused to such behavior, the experience could be unsettling. Often such tales did not stop with a sleepless night, for few writers could resist the temptation to embellish the scene. The savage beasts killed and ate their companions, disemboweled their wives, and tore their children limb from limb in blood-drenched feasts of agony, gluttony, and gore. Here was yet another reason to believe that wolves killed and at humans: such stories fulfilled people's expectations of what life on the wild frontier was like. Even if these stories were not true, they should be.
So many patently false wolf attack tales circulated throughout the nineteenth century that it is difficult to sort out those that may have been authentic. George Bird Grinnell -- competent naturalist and keen student of the American West -- believed few stories about wolf attacks. Nonetheless, one that seemed plausible to him involved the eighteen-year-old daughter of the famous western trapper and scout, Jim Baker. In 1881 Baker's family was homesteading in northwestern Colorado when his daughter went out one evening at dusk to herd some cows home for the night. "As she was going toward them," said Grinnell, "she saw a gray wolf sitting on the hillside, just above the trail. She shouted to frighten it away, and when it did not move, took up a stone and threw at it. The animal snarled at her call, and when she threw the stone, came jumping down the hill, caught her by the shoulder, threw her down, and tore her badly on the arms and legs. She screamed, and her brother, who happened to be near and had his gun, ran up and killed the wolf." Grinnell described the wolf as "a young animal, barely full grown." Shaken and bearing the scars of the attack for the remainder of her life, the girl survived.
Another convincing chronicler was Josiah Gregg, an early trader and frequent traveler of the Santa Fe Trail during the 1840s. Once while traveling through Missouri, Gregg spotted a wolf and gave chase on horseback. After overtaking the exhausted animal, he struck it over the head with a wooden club, but the club broke in two. The wolf then attacked and bit his horse; it reared and Gregg toppled off. "I was no sooner upon my feet than my antagonist renewed the charge," said Gregg, "but, being without weapons, or any means of awakening an emotion of terror, save through his imagination, I took off my large black hat, and using it for a shield, began to thrust it towards his gaping jaws. My ruse had the desired effect, for after springing at me a few times, he wheeled about and trotted off several paces, and stopped to gaze at me." Realizing that he "had the best of the bargain," Gregg took to his heels in the opposite direction.
In both these instances the attacking animal was provoked and may be seen as defending itself. At the very least, these accounts suggest that not all wolves were as meek and docile as observers...professed. In light of his experience, Gregg doubted that wolves preyed on humans, "though they probably would if very hungry and a favorable opportunity presented itself."
Alleged wolf attacks sometimes had another source: hydrophobia or rabies....Wolves occasionally became infected...and because they were large, quick, and capable of determined attack, such animals were greatly feared.
At the fur trappers' 1833 rendezvous on the Green River in western Wyoming, a white rabid wolf wandered into camp during two different nights and bit numerous people and stock animals. Exactly how many victims died as a result is unclear, but one account claims at least thirteen people, along with a prized bull, which was being herded west as a nucleus for one of the first Oregon cattle herds....By the time the rendezvous ended that summer, several victims had developed symptoms of hydrophobia -- irrational behavior, fearfulness, foaming about the mouth, and inability to consume water -- and died shortly afterward....
How much fear of bodily harm exacerbated the dislike many people already felt for wolves is difficult to assess, but it probably played no small role in further darkening public opinion of the animal. Opporbrious references to wolves surfaced in everyday western speech. "To cut your wolf loose" meant to go on a bender or do something outrageous, an act not infrequently associated with a "curly wolf" -- a mean or tough fellow. By mid-century wolves were often compared to those other troublesome western inhabitants whom many newcomers came to fear and loath -- Native Americans....
After the Sioux rebellion in Minnesota in 1862 in which some four hundred settlers lost their lives, citizens...sent a petition to President Abraham Lincoln calling for the banishment of every Sioux Indian from the state. "The Indian's nature can no more be trusted than the wolf's," claimed the citizens. "Tame him, cultivate him, strive to Christianize him, as you will, and the sight of blood will in an instant call out the savage, wolfish, devilish instincts of the race."
....Those Indians who were elusive and difficult to engage in battle were often called "cowardly wolves." Speaking of warring Apaches in Arizona, Lieutenant Britton Davis said: "Exasperated, our senses blunted by Indian atrocities, we hunted them and killed them as we hunted and killed wolves."
Before the great herds of hoofed wild animals began their precipitous decline after the middle of the nineteenth century, early travelers recorded much about the relationship and their prey....
Wolves killed a variety of large wild ungulates, but as William Clark observed in 1806, they mainly followed "the large gangues of Buffalw," feeding "on those that are killed by accident or those that are too pore to keep up with the gangue."
....Most frontier accounts agree with William Clark's observation that when wolves hunted buffalo they selected primarily the young, weak, sick, or disabled. How many actually fell to wolves can only be estimated. Reports of the number of buffalo during the early nineteenth century vary widely...although most authorities place the total at no more than forty million animals. Plains Indians told frontiersmen that wolves took as many as one-third of each year's calves. No one knows if this figure is correct, but based on an estimate of forty million buffalo, it suggests that more than two million of the seven million calves produced each year were killed by wolves. Yet, because of a calf's relatively small size, even this daunting number would have failed to provide enough meat to support the two hundred thousand wolves inhabiting the Great Plains. Given an average daily requirement of ten pounds of meat per wolf, the predators needed the equivalent of no less than three thousand adult buffalo each and every day.
With so many wolves about, early travelers frequently witnessed the hunting and killing of prey, a relatively rare occurrence today. What astounded observers was how well the predators hunted together. They "behave with great sagacity," said Rufus Sage, and "exercise a perfect understanding and concert of action with each other on such occasions." Once from a high vantage point, Sage watched a pack approach an unsuspecting buffalo herd. Most of the wolves spread out in two long parallel lines and waited while two of their members approached the herd from the downwind side, singled out a victim, and began running it toward the rest of the pack. As they came close, the two lead wolves slowed, letting others take up the chase. Each wolf bit and tore at the flanks and hindquarters of the buffalo, then fell behind to let the next in line "take part in the grand race." The pack continued this relay technique until the exhausted and bloody victim finally fell.
....During his travels along the Platte River in the 1840s, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet...[l]ike Sage...claimed wolves successfully pursued prey using a relay strategy, a behavior scientists today have not witnessed. In addition he saw them run panic-stricken buffalo over cliffs. "Then our highwaymen also go down by a roundabout way," said the priest, "and partake together of the fruit of their industry."
....The behavior of buffalo when wolves were about perplexed numerous observers. Catlin said that often herds appeared to be indifferent to individual wolves, allowing them "to sneak amidst their ranks, apparently like one of their own family."....From such accounts it appears that buffalo readily distinguished between wolves they considered threatening and those they did not. If the predators attacked, however, buffalo either bolted or stood their ground. Their choice may have been determined by their proximity to one another. When they were relatively close together, claimed Catlin, "wolves seldom attack them, as the former instantly gather for combined resistance, which they effectively make."....
If a herd elected to flee rather than fight, wolves quickly chose one animal for pursuit, even leaping over the backs of other buffalo in their single-minded determination. Those who failed to run fast became victims. In spring and early summer, calves were the most vulnerable, but by late summer and autumn they were able to keep up with running adults.
An adult buffalo brought to bay could be a formidable opponent, and wolf injury and even death were probably quite common....
....In describing how wolves actually killed victims, observers maintained that they either starved them by biting off their tongues or hamstrung them by severing tendons in their hind legs....Doubtless this may have been sometimes true, particularly with buffalo calves. But larger animals are much more difficult (and hazardous) to hamstring, and this technique is rarely, if ever, observed today in wolves. More likely they assaulted a victim's nose, neck, legs, flanks, and particularly the haunches until it collapsed from exhaustion, shock, and blood loss.
....[F]ew observers failed to pass judgment on what they saw. Most sided with the victim, saying what was most disturbing about such death was that wolves often began feeding on a victim before it ceased struggling. It was shocking, exclaimed Rufus Sage, the animal is "literally devoured alive!" Fur trader Henry Boller labeled wolves "sneaking wretches" for their depredations on "poor" buffalo. After viewing wolves, "smeared with gore," bring down a victim, Boller was so incensed that he could not resist favoring "one gentleman with a leaden pill to aid his digestion."
One man who resisted finding fault with the hunting behavior of wolves was George Catlin. Unlike human hunters, wolves slayed buffalo in fewer numbers and "for far more laudable purpose than that of selling their skins." As early as 1832 -- long before most other observers -- Catlin prophesized that buffalo and other wild animals soon would fall before the coming hordes of white invaders and what he termed their "insatiable avarice." The artist then posed the question that western settlers with their herds of domestic livestock soon would answer.
What will wolves do, asked Catlin, "after the buffaloes are all gone, and they are left, as they must be, with scarcely anything to eat?"