Today’s timber wolf shuns men. His kills weed out weak deer. The price on his head is a superstitious holdover from his gory past. A famous wildlife writer urges a new deal for the wily beast that invented co-existence

FRED BODSWORTH January 17 1959


Today’s timber wolf shuns men. His kills weed out weak deer. The price on his head is a superstitious holdover from his gory past. A famous wildlife writer urges a new deal for the wily beast that invented co-existence

FRED BODSWORTH January 17 1959


Today’s timber wolf shuns men. His kills weed out weak deer. The price on his head is a superstitious holdover from his gory past. A famous wildlife writer urges a new deal for the wily beast that invented co-existence


Surely no living creature is the villain of as much fiction and folklore as the wolf. He has long been a symbol for all things evil and fearsome, a synonym for all men ruthless and depraved. Stock-market crooks and village Casanovas are "wolves." Poverty is “the wolf at the door."

He is feared, despised, condemned. Governments have put a price on his head, it being widely accepted that taxpayers’ money spent in bounties for the slaughter of wolves is money well spent indeed. But there are signs that this old order of things is changing. Biologists are coming up with evidence that the wolf is not as black a villain as he has long been painted. Many governments have ceased to pay wolf bounties. The wolf at last is beginning to w in a few friends and supporters.

He certainly needs them, for the centuries of lurid hate propaganda heaped on his grizzled head have left him with a reputation he won't easily shed. The anti-wolf propaganda begins in our earliest childhood with the spine-chilling adventures of l ittle Red Riding Hood and The Three l ittle Pigs. It becomes a Hood as soon as we learn to read, every boy shivering through stories of woodsmen clinging in trees while the raven-

ous wolf pack howls below, and a host of other stories like it.

No doubt about it, the wolf has an evil reputation. But what manner of beast really is he?

There are two aspects to his reputation— his storybook fame as a killer of men, and the accusation that he is a needlessly vicious and wasteful killer of everything else with flesh on its bones. Let’s look first at his man-killing reputation. Has he really earned it?

The modern reader who. despite early exposure to horror legends, has been reassured ad nauseam by modern wildlife writers that wolves don’t attack humans will expect the answer “no,” yet the answer of historians and biologists is an unhesitating “yes.” The wolf has earned that notorious reputation. But he earned it a long time ago; he is a reformed wolf today in his relations with man, and the modern wolf breed has long since lost all right to the villainous maneating reputation earned by his ancestors.

The story of this wolf reformation is a story with a peculiarly pertinent lesson for modern man.

There was a time indeed when wolves had little fear of humans. Wolves of medieval Europe and Asia dined frequently on peasants, sometimes raiding and practically wiping out entire villages. But times changed and the wolf changed with them. What produced the change was the development and spread of firearms after the seventeenth century. By wolt standards, this must have seemed the ultimate weapon, and the wolf recognized that the old freebooting days when he could knock off a peasant and be opposed only by a club were over. So he took to the hills and stayed there. He’s there yet, keeping his distance at all times, striving for a state of peaceful coexistence with man, the enemy, as his only means of survival.

“The wolf of pre-gunpowder days was a different beast. One pack killed forty churchmen”

Man in his modern dilemma might have much to learn from this self-effacing wisdom of the wolf.

Where wolves have an opportunity to encounter man, even if only at very rare intervals, the fear is kept alive and probably passed on from old to young. But in remote regions where wolves have never met man, they still avoid him on first contact. Some biologists feel this is the fear of a cautious animal for a creature new and unknown; others feel that hasn't fear at all, that a man standing upright simply doesn’t look like food and the wolf's hunting and killing instinct isn’t spurred into action. On very rare occasions wolf attacks on humans can still occur, but biologists attribute these to wolves crazed by rabies.

From piety to slaughter

But the wolf of pre-gunpowder days was a far different beast and even cities were not safe against his depredations. The Louvre of Paris got its name from a glen on the north bank of the Seine long known and feared as the Louvrier, ’’the breeding place of the wolves.” From here, wolves often made forays into medieval Paris. One such attack killed forty holy men including an archbishop in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Some individual wolves won notorious places in history as killers of men. The most infamous of them was one that terrorized southern France in the 1700s and became known as the Beast of Gevaudan. Hunters are said to have killed his mother and eleven brothers and sisters in their den, but the small pup destined to become the hated Beast of Gevaudan made the sign of the cross with a forepaw and he was spared because the hunters decided France needed a few such pious and God-fearing wolves. But the maturing pup fell rapidly from grace and the rest of the story is history, not legend. In a few years he had killed or maimed a hundred and twenty persons and the great Rhone valley, his hunting ground, was practically deserted as the terrified citizenry fled. King Louis XV declared a national emergency and called out the entire standing army to hunt the beast down. The Beast of Gevaudan finally fell when an army of forty-three thousand men and four thousand dogs had been pitted against him.

Soon after this, the musket was being turned against wolves, and they abandoned their old technique of bold open attack and became crafty guerrillas hiding out in wild regions. To this day they survive in parts of France. Germany, Russia, the Middle East and India — impressive proof of their intelligence.

North American wolves were never the brazen mankillers their Old World brethren were. There are two species here. The wolf, the one we call the timber or grey wolf, is a powerful heavy-muzzled animal that looks like a very large police

dog. It is usually grey, but can vary from almost white in the Arctic to reddish brown and occasionally black. Big ones are as much as seven feet long, a yard high at the shoulder and weigh a hundred and seventy-five pounds, but the

average is seventy-five pounds. Its most formidable weapons are jaws powerful enough to sever a two-inch hardwood stick at one bite. Our other North American wolf, the coyote, is about half this size. Coyote is a western name for him; where he has left the plains and is living in forest country he is known as the brush wolf.

The timber wolf of America is now classed by biologists as belonging to the same species as the Old World wolf— they are Canis lupus, all of them. But, though identical biologically, their dispositions must have differed, because our timber wolf has always displayed a healthy respect and fear for man. The white man had firearms from the beginning and the wolf soon learned he was bad medicine, to be left alone. There is evidence wolves attacked Indians in prewhite days, but even the unarmed Indians apparently were not victimized like prefirearm Europeans, probably because American wolves had more abundant game than did wolves of the Old World.

This doesn't mean that North American wolves have never attacked humans. A few such attacks have been authenticated but most belong to that early period of man-wolf adjustment when there were still a few doughty wolves around who hadn’t yet learned that attainment of a state of peaceful coexistence with man was the only safe policy.

Pioneer ornithologist John James Audubon has written of two Kentucky Negroes who set out one night to visit girl friends and were attacked by wolves. They fought the animals with axes but eventually one of the men fell and the wolves jumped upon him. This gave the other Negro an opportunity to break away and climb a tree. Bitten and bleeding. he spent the night in the tree while the wolves devoured his companion below.

A pioneer Pennsylvania doctor named Thornton became lost in the bush while visiting patients and was besieged two days by a wolf pack. Finally the pack closed in but the resourceful medical man had removed his trousers and saturated them with ammonia from his doctor’s bag. He beat the animals off with the reeking piece of clothing and the wolves, gagging on the ammonia fumes, kept their distance thereafter until searchers found and rescued the doctor.

Very rarely, wolf attacks on humans still occur. In December 1942, Vfike Dusiak, a CPR sectionman in the Chapleau region of northern Ontario, was patrolling his track on a jigger when a wolf leaped at him, knocking him into the ditch, Dusiak grabbed an axe and fought off the wolf for many minutes. He was near exhaustion when a freight passed and the locomotive crew saw the man and the wolf fighting. The train stopped and backed up, and three men leaped from the engine armed with picks and wrenches. The wolf still stood his ground but was soon overpowered and killed.

Harry Lumsden, an Ontario government biologist, says the evidence in these cases always suggests rabid wolves. Lumsden recently talked to an Indian at l.ansdowne House in northern Ontario who woke up in his trapline tent one night in the winter of 1954-55 and found a wolf inside the tent with him. The Indian grabbed his gun and after a struggle shot the wolf but the wolf left several great teeth marks in the hardwood gunstock which Lumsden was able to examine and verify. ‘This wolf must certainly have been a rabid one," Lumsden says.

Despite these exceptions, the experts say your chance of being attacked by a wolf in wolf country is less than the danger of being suddenly and inexplicably murdered while walking down a city street. The normal wolf has a tremendous fear of man.

Although the wolf has long been willing and anxious to leave man alone, he

has never displayed the same respect for man's livestock. Even the most insistent wolf defender admits that timber wolves and livestock raising are utterly incompatible. Smart as he is, the wolf has never learned to distinguish between domestic livestock and wild livestock, and this coupled with the evil reputation that history had already bestowed upon him became his undoing.

From earliest pioneer times in North America, the wolf was hunted mercilessly. Originally the timber wolf ranged across the continent from the Arctic south as far as Mexico City, but slowly he yielded ground. He yielded first in the east, crowded out rather than hunted out, for as the protecting forest disappeared and population soared it soon became impossible for a wolf to survive long before inevitably he must encounter a man with a gun. But space remained on the plains and the battle between wolves and cattlemen there didn’t end until a few decades ago.

Prairie wolves developed their technique of avoiding man, his traps and

snares, to an incredible perfection. This has given western history many famous wolves. One South Dakota wolf, named Three Toes because one foot was maimed in a trap, was hunted constantly because his distinctive track always identified him. At least a hundred and fifty men tried in vain to bring him down, yet Three Toes avoided traps and guns for fourteen years, killing an estimated fifty thousand dollars' worth of livestock during that time. Finally, his keen senses weakening from age. Three Toes was trapped and killed in 1925, but not until the U. S. government, spurred by irate ranchers, hired an expert hunter and put him full-time on the maimed wolfs trail.

It is probable that the astute and defiant grey wolf of the plains would be there yet and doing well if guns and traps had remained the cattlemen's only weapons. But ranchers found a deadlier weapon in strychnine, a virulent poison that had little smell. The plain.; became plastered with it. Every cowboy carried it; every dead animal a cowboy passed was dosed with it. It produced a frightful slaughter, killing millions of birds, foxes, gophers, dogs and even the cattle and mice that ate grass on which poisoned animals had slobbered. But it killed wolves too. And it was the end for the grey wolf of the plains. In a few regions of the west where mountains and timber give him cover he survives still, but in the cattle lands he is gone.

How has he fared elsewhere? Only in the forest and tundra lands of northern Canada and Alaska does the timber wolf

survive in fair numbers today. How many are there? Dr. C. H. D. Clarke, now supervisor of wildlife management in Ontario, estimated in 1940 that there were thirty-six thousand wolves in the Northwest Territories — three wolves for each hundred square miles. A 1956 attempt to estimate the timber wolf population of northern Ontario produced a figure of nine thousand, but biologists emphasize such figures are little more than guesses.

But the other North American wolf, the coyote, has prospered under man’s domination of the continent. Being smaller, he menaces livestock less, and he has learned to survive in agricultural country close to man. For him, coexistence has been a huge success, so much so that his range has broadened out dramatically in the past thirty years.

Originally the coyote was an animal of the open prairie, but man’s clearing of land for agriculture has created prairielike conditions across much of the continent, and the coyote has moved out from the plains to wherever the new manmade prairies have led. In the process he has learned to live in lightly forested country too, earning the name brush wolf to distinguish him from the timber wolf which has retreated into the big timber and remote wilderness. The coyote has spread eastward abundantly into the farmlands of Ohio and southern Ontario and in small numbers as far as Quebec, Maine and Florida.

This is a complete reversal of the old wolf order in North America. The timber wolf which originally held sway across the continent has retreated to the distant hinterlands. The coyote, originally confined to the western plains, has now laid claim to most of the continent.

So the coyote, it seems, will take care of himself, but what lies in store for his big and rangy cousin? The timber wolf desires only to leave man alone and has been eliminated from farming regions where he could menace livestock. Why then is he slaughtered still at every opportunity? Why do many governments encourage the slaughter by paying wolf bounties, officially endorsing the assumption that the only good wolf is a dead one?

There is no mystery about it. We hate him still because of his reputation as a vicious killer. And we hate him particularly because of his reputation as a killer of one animal especially admired by both nature-lovers and sportsmen—the deer.

The average hunter believes that when wolves kill a deer that is one less deer for next fall’s shooting. Biologists wish it were that simple, but it isn’t. Nature is recklessly extravagant with life and to ensure its perpetuation every creature is fashioned to produce offspring in numbers much greater than its food and living space can support.

The principal limiting factor that determines the number of deer or other big game in most regions is the amount of food available during critical late-winter months when snow is deep and the animals are unable to move far to seek new food. Extensive analyses of wolf stomachs have proved that wolves do not prey heavily on deer during the non-snow months from March to November, because a healthy well-fed deer can outrun a wolf whose top speed on a long chase is only about twenty miles an hour. Normally the wolf finds other small mammals easier pickings than deer. But in late winter when the snow is crusted and sharp-hoofed deer sink through while wolves do not, deer become the major wolf food. Thus the main period of wolf predation on deer coincides with the period when deer browse is at its lowest.

Under these circumstances, wolves are usually killing deer that are doomed to starve anyway, and the death of one deer leaves food on which another deer can survive. And that is not all. When wolves chase a deer herd they capture and kill the hindmost deer. Nine times out of ten this hindmost deer will be the weakest and oldest, so the deer that survive are the healthiest ones most likely to produce twin or triplet fawns instead of single fawns the following summer.

What keeps wolves from multiplying until by sheer weight of numbers they exterminate deer in their hunting territory?

‘it just can’t happen,” says Rod Standfield, an Ontario government biologist engaged in wolf research. "No predator can build up to the point at which it destroys its own food supply. The deer population determines wolf numbers, and not vice versa. When deer numbers go down, making it more difficult for wolves to obtain food at that critical late-winter period, the wolf population also goes down, for the old and weak ones starve and the survivors reproduce more slowly. The balance between predator-prey populations is automatically self-adjusting.”

When food is abundant and wolves are healthy they may produce ten or more young to a litter (the average: seven). But after a hard winter litters may average two or three and the mother may not have enough milk to keep even these alive. Standfield describes another check on wolf populations: wolves apparently are disturbed by overcrowding. When wolf density reaches a certain point, breeding is slowed down by strife and nervous stress within the wolves’ own ranks.

But biologists agree there are circumstances when wolf numbers must be controlled. They may need controlling where they are killing livestock. Or they may need reducing after a severe winter of starvation for deer, when man can help bring the deer back by destroying wolves himself instead of waiting for nature to do it by starvation and slowdown in breeding. But the biologists claim our traditional instrument of wolf control— paying bounties from public funds—is expensive, wasteful and ineffective. The real bounty victim, they say, is the taxpayer and not the wolf.

"As far as the wolf is concerned, it is like dipping a pail of water from a stream,” says Dr. C. H. D. Clarke. “Every wolf killed leaves a niche for another wolf to move in and fill. By reducing pressure on food supply, bounties probably assist wolves. They help the remaining wolves survive in a healthier, more vigorous condition.” It is like taking wheat off a field—as long as the farmer leaves a bit of seed, he will have the same wheat crop again next year. But wolf bounties and the wolf-hate they symbolize still persist. They persist because government action in such matters must spring from public understanding and demand. And when it comes to wolves, Little Red Riding Hood can still exert more influence on public opinion than the dissertations of a hundred scientists.

In agricultural country we must eliminate the wolf; but in the hinterlands he belongs, a necessary and integral part of the Canadian wilderness like spruce trees and lakes. May his howl continue to lift above tundras and muskeg, quavering, trembling across the nighttime sky like the crimson stabs of the aurora that inspire it. May the day soon come when we will be prepared to meet him halfway and grant him the peaceful coexistence he has sought so long, ^