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Prairie Wolves

It can be confusing to read, in documents of early prairie settlement, references to “prairie wolves.” The creature of note is no more a wolf than a prairie dog is a dog or a prairie chicken is a chicken. Canis latrans, known in parts south as the coyote, was christened the prairie wolf by early travelers on the overland trails, who first encountered it on the prairies.

Settlers arriving in the territory knew the beast by reputation, because prairie wolves were observed to track and hang around overland caravans, looking for refuse or targets of opportunity. With agricultural settlement public sentiment redefined the prairie wolf from the status of nuisance to that of public menace. Organized wolf hunts, involving scores or hundreds of participants, covered many sections and even townships of country in pursuit of the perceived pests.

In 1897 the annual wolf hunt at Rock Island, near Devils Lake, drew national press attention. It seems doubtful the reporter ever visited the venue of the hunt; he seems confused about the status of Rock Island, a peninsula jutting south into the lake; he thought it was truly an island.

The reporter fed readers every possible asperson on the character of prairie wolves. “The animals are a great pest to the farmers and stockmen,” he wrote, “for they prey upon their calves and pigs unmercifully. They generally prowl in packs of from six to twenty, and they do the greatest damage on those wild, stormy nights, when it worth a man’s life almost for him to walk a dozen yards from his door.”

According to this account settlers each winter assembled on “Indian ponies,” each man armed with “a rifle and a couple of revolvers,” to assault the “hundreds” of prairie wolves ganged up on Rock Island.

In fact, community wolf hunts were well-organized affairs. In November 1910, for instance, press notices summoned participants to “an old-fashioned hunt” organized by the Minot Commercial Club. Horseback hunters accompanied by birddogs were to work the coulees,  with wolfhounds held in reserve for pursuit. At noon there was to be a break for a lunch of beef roast at the Martin Jacobson ranch, after which the hunt would resume. Participants were to bring shotguns and handguns, but no rifles.

The big Minot hunt turned into a lark and a photo op, as given the broken country traversed, only two prairie wolves were brought down. Hunts in more open country, such as the one at Cando in November 1921, were more effective. Such hunts featured elected captains, pre-arranged assembly points along a perimeter, and a designated endpoint to which the prairie wolves were to be driven.

Despite such organized campaigns of hostility, there remained a certain popular fascination with prairie wolves. A Valley City dentist named F. W. Chandler figured in press reports of 1908 describing his collection of “eight fine specimens” of the prairie wolf, which he believed “susceptible to the taming influence of human attention” and hoped to train “in much the same manner that dogs are handled.” Just to be on the safe side, he extracted their fangs.

Two years later Dave and Pete Brennan dug out four “wolf pups” and brought them into Oakes, where they were “objects of considerable interest,” “little grey fellows”--which, the editor observed, “were easily domesticated” and “smart pets” but liable to be “treacherous” when grown.

I wonder sometimes whether our relationship with the prairie wolf is not so much a commentary on the character of the coyote as a mirror on our own, human nature.

~Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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