A respected naturalist, Ernest Seton, once estimated that as many as two million wolves roamed North America and northern Mexico before colonists arrived. One reason: abundant bison. Bison once grazed in at least 40 of the Lower 48 states with 30 million or more bison between the Atlantic coast and the Rockies. And gray wolves—once found in 41 of the Lower 48—followed those huge herds of bison. Bison were so used to seeing wolves that Native American hunters wore wolf pelts as disguises so they could close in on bison. But by 1970 only 700 or so wolves remained in the Lower 48. How did two million wolves disappear?
1. Wolf hatred arrived with colonists
The disappearance of those millions of wolves begins in the Old World before colonists even arrived here. The often told story says Old World wolf hatred begat New World wolf hatred. Wolves had been eradicated, for example, from England in the 1500s and Scotland in the 1600s. So even though most colonists had never lost livestock to wolves, had never seen or heard wolves, many stepped off the boats into the New World hating the predators.
But these immigrants and their descendants—our ancestors—added an American twist to wolf hatred, according to historian John Coleman in his book Vicious: Wolves and Men in America. Given the colonists’ Old World view of wolves as monsters, one would expect New World settlers to have avoided wolves. Yet Coleman discovered records from as early as 1621 that show the opposite. A settler, in one example, stumbled upon wolves at a deer kill, chased the wolves away, and swiped the meat. Records also document colonists encountering wolves and the frightened animals turning tail.
If wolves were such cowards, why did colonists treat them so viciously? Religion was partly to blame, says Coleman. Colonists thumped the Bible to rationalize wreaking havoc on wolves for the crime of killing their livestock.
Yet settlers aided and abetted the predators’ crimes by grazing livestock in wolf country without proper supervision. Coleman found colonists entrusted their herds to teenage boys “short in stature and attention span.” Wolves—struggling because settlers had overhunted their natural prey—took some livestock. This scenario moved west with civilization: Settlers killed off wild game and grazed livestock; wolves came to dine. Settlers fought back. They didn’t just kill wolves; they ravaged them, Coleman says, because these Euro-Americans fantasized…”to overpower savagery one must lash out savagely.”
Lashing out involved creating fantasies that were the opposite of reality. Colonists portrayed wolves preying on humans. Reality: humans preyed on wolves. Colonists described howling wolves surrounding humans and inducing panic. Reality: humans surrounded and panicked wolves. This savage wolf—a figment in minds fed with fantasies—prompted the eradication of wolves.
In 1630 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first colonial wolf bounty. In 1632 Virginia followed suit. In 1697 a New Jersey law established payment for wolf carcasses. Wolves began to vanish east of the Mississippi.
Wolves disappeared from Massachusetts by 1840, Ohio by 1850, Illinois by 1860, West Virginia by 1887, Pennsylvania by 1892, and from New York and Kentucky by the late 1800s.
2. Settlers encroached on wolf territory west of the Mississippi
While wolves vanished “back east,” plenty of wolves still hunted bison on the Great Plains. To estimate the number of wolves, researchers in 2005 used a new DNA technique. They calculated 380,000 wolves in the western United States and Mexico prior to the late 1800s and early 1900s. These wolves would be in harm’s way as setters migrated west.
By 1849 two events helped spur westward migration, according to Richard Slatta, Professor of History at North Carolina State University. In 1848, the U.S. victory in the Mexican War opened up vast new areas of land in the West. In 1849 the gold rush in California brought hordes of fortune hunters.
By 1854 the first homesteaders moved onto the Great Plains, and after 1862 the Homestead Act made claiming western lands easier. Anyone willing to settle in the West got 160 acres of free land if they built a home and farmed that land for five years.
After the Civil War ended, western farming boomed. Homesteaders flooded to the Great Plains from 1870 to 1890. The 1874 invention of barbed wire allowed large areas of land to be fenced cheaply and enclose livestock.
From 1867 until the early 1880s, the cattle industry peaked as railroads provided refrigerated and relatively inexpensive transportation of beef to distant consumers. At the same time more land was looted for ranching when Native Americans were forced onto reservations.
As farmers and ranchers settled on the Great Plains, writes Slatta, they “needed seeds, equipment, household goods, animal feed, and credit. Thus small towns began to dot the western landscape as retail businesses and banks arose to serve the growing population. Social centers, including churches, schools, and saloons, grew as well.”
By the late 1800's, the once wide open West had become a patchwork of farms, ranches, and towns. So much of the West had filled up by 1890 that the Census Bureau declared the western frontier no longer existed.
Of course, all these farms, ranches, and towns sat right in wolf and bison country. Conflict was inevitable.
3. Wolves’ natural prey was eliminated
Settlers hungry for meat and for land upon which to graze their livestock killed the natural prey of wolves.
The killing of bison presents a clear—and tragic—example. Bison were eradicated from Virginia by 1730. By the 1770s bison had vanished from most or all of the Carolinas, Alabama and Florida. By 1808 they had vanished from Ohio; by 1830 from Indiana; and by 1832 from Wisconsin. In just 100 years bison had been eradicated east of the Mississippi.
Next, most of the millions that remained on the Great Plains were killed to make bison robes, feed railroad workers, and fuel an industrial revolution. They were also killed for sport and as a means of controlling Native Americans. By 1884 only 325 wild bison survived in the Lower 48. This included two dozen hiding deep within Yellowstone National Park where hunting was not allowed.
The populations of other wildlife—elk, deer, pronghorn, and moose—that ranchers called competitors for precious grass also declined. As wildlife lost the battle for grass, cattle and sheep moved in. Hungry wolves did what comes naturally: take the prey—cattle and sheep—that is most available and poses the least risk.
4. Wolves were killed for bounties
With ranchers running cattle in wolf country and with wolves’ taking livestock, ranchers complained. State governments responded by instituting bounties on wolves. In 1838 Michigan instituted a bounty as did Minnesota in 1849, Iowa in 1858, Wisconsin in 1865, Colorado in 1869, Wyoming in 1875, and Montana in 1883.
Historians Whittlesey and Schullery found records that show bounties paid on 80,000 wolves from 1883 to 1918 in Montana and on 30,000 wolves in Wyoming from 1895 to 1917. They caution that these numbers may be overstated because “bounty hunters were creative and energetic in defrauding authorities.”
They reference another historian, Edward Currow, who estimated that the number of wolves killed during the 1860s and 1870s was unknown but a “conservative estimate would be more than 100,000 per year between 1870 and 1877.” That's 700,000 wolves killed.
The killing came in various ways. Wolves were hunted with dogs, shot, trapped, and even dug from their dens. Wolves died after eating poisoned carcasses left for them.
5. Wolves were killed for their pelts
In addition to killing wolves to open up ranch land, the market for wolf hides boomed as beavers—trapped to make felt hats—neared extinction in the 1800s.
In the 1870s and early 1880s wolfers (professional wolf hunters) killed wolves for the value of their pelts. Whittlesey and Schullery refer to an 1873 article in Helena, Montana’s, The Daily Herald reporting that a group of wolfers accumulated about 10,000 wolf hides during one winter.
6. Wolves fell to a federal predator eradication program
The killing of wolves began to become institutionalized in 1885 when a small three-person unit, the Section of Economic Ornithology, was created in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gather and analyze information on bird migrations.
By 1900, livestock interests throughout the West were lobbying against the collection of grazing fees on national forest land and other public domains heavily populated with wolves and coyotes. The federal government moved to protect its income at the cost of wildlife.
In 1905, the Section of Economic Ornithology became the Bureau of Biological Survey, which flourished during the massive westward migration driven by immigration pressure and the easy availability of land for homesteaders.
Between 1905 and 1907, Biological Survey investigated predator-livestock conflicts and produced publications that described how to shoot, trap, and poison wolves. The agency helped develop the practice of taking wolf pups in the den.
Predator and rodent control became the dominant activity within the Biological Survey by the early 1920s. This paid well. For many years the financial support received from western States and livestock associations well exceeded monies appropriated by Congress for the Survey’s budget, according to a Texas Tech University paper.
Between 1916 and 1926 the National Park Service joined in the killing. Its predator control program resulted in the extermination of wolves from Yellowstone National Park by 1926.
In addition to the killing by the federal government, wolf hunts peaked in the 1920s and1930s, with up to 21,000 wolves killed every year.
Wolves vanished from Missouri by the late 1800s, from Kansas by the early 1900s, from Nebraska by 1913, from Iowa by 1925, and from Colorado by 1941.
By 1970 only 700 of the once two million wolves remained in the Lower 48. They were hiding in the woods of northern Minnesota and on Isle Royale.
In 1997 the Biological Survey become Wildlife Services—the secretive and out-of-control wolf killers that continues the killing wolves.
7. Killing wolves wasn't enough
Wolves never fought back in this one-sided war. Their natural intelligence, speed, strength, and teeth were no match for our big brains and big arsenals.
But eliminating wolves from the landscape was not enough. Even as wolves vanished, we kept wolves alive, feared, and hated in literature, especially in children's stories. Take Grimm's Fairy Tales. Though wolves were almost eradicated in Germany by 1812 when that book was published, it contained "Little Red Riding Hood," with its infamous wolf.
In 1886—more than three hundred years after the wolf was eradicated in England—“The Three Little Pigs" was published in The Nursery Rhymes of England. In that tale, a wolf with an insatiable appetite manages to eat two of the pigs before the third kills and eats him. Stories such as these taught new generations to fear and hate wolves that didn't even exist.
And the myths exist today, still feeding a bloodlust to exterminate wolves.
Award-winning Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes, speaks, and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands.
His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.