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Wolf Hunters

Coyotes, known in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “prairie wolves,” were considered merely a nuisance in the days of the overland trails. As agricultural settlement dug into prairies, however, farm folk redefined prairie wolves as a menace.

Organized community wolf hunts were social affairs with a hostile purpose: eradication of a perceived pest. At the same time, people retained a curiosity and odd affection for the prairie wolves, often attempting to keep them as pets.

There arose, however, a curious subculture focused on the coyote, one motivated financially by county bounties but drawn emotionally by the thrill of the chase.

An intriguing item in the Emmons County Record, 21 February 1907, expresses sorrow about the physical state of “Uncle” Ben Corbin, “the old wolf hunter,” who was partially paralyzed--it sounds like he had a stroke. “We hope he soon will be able to make his appearance among us again,” writes the editor, “and give us some more of his ‘facts’ on wolf hunting.”

There were wolf hunters like Uncle Ben Corbin--keepers of wolf hounds, hunters of prairie wolves--across the territory, and some of them were legendary.

Most of the wolf hunters enjoyed only local fame, their exploits reported with bemusement by their country editors. The Oakes Weekly Republican of 17 February 1893 recounted an outing by “a few of our keenest sportsmen” along with “the noble 400 canines of Oakes,” whose heroic efforts dispatched exactly one coyote.

The Jamestown Weekly Alert recounts a more successful hunt in 1896 that began on the Trimble farm southwest of town with the laying of a dead horse for bait. The hunters, the DePuy brothers from Bismarck, were hired killers who brought in a wagon loaded with four seasoned wolf hounds. It seems this hunt targeted actual gray wolves, not just prairie wolves, and the hunters killed three of them. One of the boys observed, “We all voted this the best wolf hunt we ever had, and I doubt if the record can be beaten.”

The boast had credibility, for by this time, gray wolves were rare, and most wolf hunters settled for prairie wolves. Their chases often ended not with a grand battle but with shovel work, digging out prairie wolves run to den. But the bounty money was good, set for some time at $3.00, until that got too expensive.

One pack master emerged as the Paul Bunyan of prairie wolf hunters: Adam Lesmeister, of Pierce County. Already in October 1913 press reports said in that year he had killed 325, collecting a bounty on each and then selling the hides.

The census of 1910 lists Mr. Lesleister as a 34-year-old Russian German farmer, born in Russia, living on a mortgaged farm with kids, his in-laws, and two hired men. The bounty money no doubt helped carry the mortgage.

An extended feature article in the Bismarck Tribune of 16 April 1923 updates us as to the exploits of the great hunter, declaring Mr. Lesmeister the holder of the “world record” for killing 8,501 prairie wolves since 1898--that figure including 18 grays, the rest coyotes. He held bounty receipts documenting income of $21,237.50 in North Dakota, plus additional revenue from South Dakota.

The story prevailed that Mr. Lesmeister killed the young wolves, and sentimentally let the old ones go. He denied the report, but the legend lived.

~Tom Isern

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