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Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item # 843
v26 n4 (1998)

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Famous North American Wolves and the Credibility of Early Wildlife Literature
Philip S. Gipson, Warren B. Ballard, and Ronald M. Nowak
In early accounts, many famous wolves were reported to be older than they actually were, and the authors estimate that they did not live long enough to have caused purported damage to livestock and game animals. Some famous wolves may actually have been dogs, wolf-dog hybrids, or possibly coyote-dog hybrids. They document instances where early authors appeared to embellish or fabricate information.
Contemporary perceptions about gray wolves (Canis lupus) and red wolves (C. rufus) were influenced by accounts of individual depredating wolves by Seton (1898, 1929, 1937), Bell (1921), Carhart and Young (1929), Graham (1938), Young and Goldman (1944), Young (1946, 1970), Wiley (1954), King (1965), Brown (1983), and others. Stanley P. Young, in particular, created lasting and negative perceptions about wolves among ranchers, hunters, and wildlife managers through his popular articles, agriculture publications and 4 books*....Recent studies of public perceptions of wolf restoration attributed some of the fear and hatred of wolves to accounts of notorious livestock killers. Mech (1970) noted that a number of notorious wolves earned reputations for possessing almost supernatural qualities that allowed them to avoid capture by the best trappers.
Famous wolves commonly were recognized by unique tracks caused by injuries to their feet when they were caught in traps and escaped. Wolves called "Old Two Toes," "Peg Leg," and "Club Foot" were widely known. Occasionally, a famous wolf such as "Three Toes" of Harding County, South Dakota was thought to be the last wolf in a region; consequently, it was credited with any local damage believed to have been caused by a wolf. Other famous wolves were known by unusual coloration, such as the "Phantom Wolf" that had a tawny pelt similar to a collie dog. Atypical behavior made other famous wolves easy to recognize: the "Custer Wolf" traveled with coyotes (C. latrans)....
Understanding of wolf-prey relationships has increased greatly during the past 20 years and reliable aging techniques for wolves have become available. These advances now allow for comparisons of current data with historical literature to determine the credibility of earlier accounts. We examine the credibility of early literature about famous North American gray wolves and the negative perceptions created by the literature that influenced wolf management at the time.
We searched literature from North America for reports of famous gray wolves. Based on published accounts summarized by Gipson and Ballard (1998), we estimated minimum periods of time during which depredations reportedly occurred, kill rates, and extent of damage, and we summarized the physical and behavioral characteristics of the wolves in question. We contacted museums and managers of private wildlife collections in the United States, Canada, and Mexico to locate skulls and mounted skins of famous wolves....
We compared the length of time that famous wolves reportedly damaged livestock and wild game to their estimated age at the time of death. Tooth wear was used to estimate wolf ages....When the literature provided only a minimum amount of time that a wolf was known to damage livestock, we assumed the minimum age of that wolf to be the period of reported depredation plus 1 year, because it is unlikely that a wolf younger than 1 year old would have been a serious predator of range livestock. This allowed us to evaluate whether famous wolves lived long enough to cause the damage attributed to them....
We summarized reported kill rates and consumption rates for wolves preying on wild ungulates and livestock from recent literature. We then compared recently reported kill rates with depredation rates reported for famous wolves....
At least 59 famous gray wolves are reported to have existed in North America during 1739 through 1958. The reputations of 56 of these wolves were based on the purportedly significant amounts of damage they caused to livestock and wild game. We examined the skulls of 7 of the 56 wolves, and close-up photographs of the teeth of 3 additional mounted specimens, for age determination (Table 1). Our estimates of age were significantly lower than the original estimates of age reported in the literature. Our estimates of age for the 10 wolves averaged 6.2 years whereas reported estimates averaged 10.6 years.
We calculated kill rates for 14 famous, depredating wolves; each purportedly killed an average of 57 cattle annually (Table 2). If these estimates were correct, then each wolf had an average of 48 kg of cattle flesh available per day. A famous wolf from Minnesota killed 1,200 deer over a 12-year period, i.e., 100 deer each year. According to Fuller's (1989) estimate of 42 kg of edible flesh per deer, this would have provided approximately 11.5 kg of deer flesh to the wolf per day.
Most famous North American wolves lived in the relatively brief period from 1890 to 1930, although efforts to control wolves extend back to the colonial period....We traced the notoriety of 29 famous wolves to documents published by the U.S. BiologicalSurvey and information supplied by its employees. This information was developed to enhance support for predator-control programs....A technique used by district inspectors...was to write accounts of notorious wolves and use these accounts to develop support for their program....
Publications by naturalist writers...were a second source of notoriety for individual wolves. These were written to appeal to the public, hunters, livestock producers, and natural resource managers. Seton (1898) was the first of the naturalist writers to publish accounts about notorious wolves. His account of the New Mexican wolves, Lobo and Blanca, was popular throughout the world, and, during the 1960s, a full-length Disney movie was released about Lobo and Blanca. Accounts of famous wolves by naturalist writers that followed Seton often originated from information provided by the U.S. Biological Survey. For example, S.P. Young was an employee of the Biological Survey and a prolific writer, who based many of his wolf publications on records from the Biological Survey....
Our age determinations for 10 notorious wolves, compared with the original reports of their age, suggests that most estimates of age provided by early writers were exaggerated. For example, Young (1970) claimed that Big Foot ranged between DeBeque and Grand Junction, Colorado for 17 years, a period equal to the longevity record for captive wolves, which seems highly unlikely....Mech (1988) noted that a few wild wolves in Minnesota might reach 13 years of age....
We found that reported damage to livestock in early accounts was far greater than recently documented wold kill rates of wild ungulates and domestic livestock in North America....One famous wolf, Lobo-Killer Wolf of the North, reportedly preyed almost exclusively on deer and other wild game in Minnesota. From estimates of deer killed by the wolf, we calculated an average of 11.5 kg of deer flesh available to the wolf per day. This estimate appears high when compared with the consumption rate of 2.9 kg of der flesh reported by Fritts and Mech (1981), working in the same general area of Minnesota during winter, when energy demands of wolves should be expected to be high.
We considered 3 possible explanations for the relatively high kill rates reported for famous wolves: (1) some famous wolves engaged in surplus killing of livestock and game, (2) a few famous wolves were wild dogs or wolf-dog hybrids, and (3) early authors exaggerated damage by famous wolves....
Surplus killing may provide a logical explanation for high kill rates on sheep, but not for cattle. During the period when famous wolves purportedly caused excessive damage on free-ranging cattle, the most commonly ranged breeds were longhorns and longhorn-Hereford crosses. Longhorn cattle were selected for their ability to defend themselves and their calves against predators. Most accounts of lone wolves surplus killing free-ranging longhorn cattle probably were exaggerated....
Some famous wolves may have been wild dogs, wolf-dog hybrids, or coyote-dog hybrids, crosses commonly mistaken for wolves....Dogs and hybrids are sometimes aggressive and unpredictable when attacking sheep and cattle, at times indiscriminately chasing and mutilating many individuals....Furthermore, some famous wolves had physical features or reproductive seasons that suggest hybridization with dogs.
Wolf-dog hybrids and wild dogs were encountered often during early predator-control operations. For example, in 1918 and 1919 Biological Survey inspectors for New Mexico and Arizona developed a cooperative plan to kill wolves, hybrids, and a pack of wild dogs....If, historically, dogs and hybrids were often mistaken for wolves, then the high killing rates reported may have resulted, not from exaggerations, but attribution of kills to the wrong predator species.
Finally, high kill rates may be a result of exaggerated or misleading accounts of famous wolves. Seton (1929) admitted taking a "writer's liberty" in writing the stories of some individual wolves, attributing adventures to them which actually belonged to other wolves....
Examination of evidence presented by Young and Goldman (1944) about "Three Toes" of Harding County, South Dakota suggests that parts of their account were fabricated. These authors indicated that [more than] 150 men attempted to capture the wolf during a 13-year period during which it was believed to have killed [more than] $50,000 worth of livestock.....Nowak (1995) conducted a multivariate analysis comparing the skull of this wolf to wolves in other populations. He concluded that the wolf, which was significantly larger than other wolves from South Dakota and neighboring states, probably originated in Canada. It is possible that the wolf dispersed from Canada, or that the carcass of a large wolf with a missing toe was transported to South Dakota and presented as the legendary Three Toes. Although these cases are not directly applicable to the issue of extraordinarily high kill rates attributed to famous damaging wolves, we believe they support our skepticism about the credibility of the historical accounts.
Table 1: Estimates of age of 10 famous North American wolves based on tooth wear compared to estimates of age reported in literature.
Table 2: Purported livestock depredations for famous North American wolves, 1894-1930. Kill rates and available flesh (kg) per wolf per day were calculated...from data presented in literature.
Figure 1: Skulls of famous North American wolves. Beginning in the upper left, the skulls are from Three Toes of Harding County, South Dakota; Lono King of Currumpaw and his mate Blanca; Unaweep, Old Clubfoot, and Three Toes of the Apishapa.

* The Last Stand of the Pack, Carhart and Young (1929), The Wolf in North American History, Young (1946), Wolves of North America, Young and Goldman (1944), The Last of the Loners, Young (1970).