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Lord Byron No. 2

“Lord Byron No. 2” - yes, that’s the way he signed his work. An otherwise anonymous poet of the West River, writing for the Dickinson Press. His epic ballad was published on 13 March 1897. His subject: coyotes, or rather, the destruction thereof.

We people of the northern plains have an ambivalent relationship with coyotes, wolves, and predators in general. I have told the story of Old Three Toes, a beast who was the bane of shepherds in Harding County, South Dakota—but who possessed a nickname resonant of outlaw-admiration. I have written, too, about Virginia Bill Hamilton, the Cave Hills rancher who crossbred trail hounds and greyhounds to produce a pack of dogs that would eradicate wolves from his district.

I have sung the affectionate coyote ballads of Bismarck’s Clell Gannon, but also chronicled the exploits of hard-bitten coyote bounty hunters with their dog buggies and coursing hounds.

Lord Byron No. 2 possessed no such ambivalence. “I’m a granger on the prairie,” he sings (his poem being obviously intended for singing, but no tune given), and “I want to praise the people who pushed that bounty through.”

While you chew on the fact of a North Dakotan expressing praise for the actions of our legislative assembly, let me explain that the bounty our boy Byron refers to was a reward for the killing of either gray “buffalo” wolves or “prairie wolves,” as it said, meaning coyotes. Three dollars for the skin of every canine predator killed.

Lord Byron No. 2 goes on for sixteen four-line stanzas about this. He explains that times were hard in the West: “Things were looking pretty misty for us fellows up the creek,” he declares. His haystacks are all gone, his cattle are starving and dying in droves. He’s patching his britches with cowhide and keeping them up with suspenders made of the same. Now, blessedly, the bounty law gives him hope.

For a time our lives looked darksome
Now there comes a welcome light
Shining o’er the frozen prairie
Splendid, grand, effulgent, bright

And while we chase the flying wolf
And chase the keyute, too
We honor all those people, then
Who pushed that bounty through

Whence this new enthusiasm? I notice that our Byron does not complain of depredations by coyotes on livestock. He only lauds the wisdom and generosity of the legislators in paying bounties.

And pay they did. Perusing the pages of the Press, I see the registers of payments of wolf bounties by the county auditor (to be reimbursed by the state)—scores of recipients, each receiving cash payments of dollars in multiples of 3. Nine dollars, fifteen dollars, twenty-four dollars, forty-two dollars. The amounts may seem insubstantial, but in the hard times of the 1890s, they were a godsend.

There was another dynamic at work. 1896-97 was a hard winter. There were blizzards before Christmas that directly killed livestock—the papers are filled with notes like, “P. T. Miller’s four horses strayed away in the Thanksgiving blizzard and he only found them last week—in a snowbank.” Worse, early onset of winter meant a long season of feeding hay, and stockmen’s stacks ran out.

The legislators knew all this, and they essentially made the coyote a medium for cash assistance to farmers and ranchers. The monetization of the coyote got people through the winter of 1897—and inspired the poetic effulgence of Lord Byron No. 1.

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