Vagneur: Our debt to the wild wolves

More than once, I traveled up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, right outside of Ely. It’s a protected wilderness area. I’ve been there twice — once with a friend and once alone, not because I like canoes and water so much, but more because I like really cold winter weather, wilderness, and wolves. 

It never got cold enough, and I never saw a wolf there; but at night in the dark, we could hear the howls and then the excitement as they downed something to eat. The signal was sent out far and wide for whatever scavengers there were in the area; and once in the morning, we found a close spot not more than 50 yards from the cabin. There was basically nothing left, except some blood-stained snow, packed-down from large footprints, hair and, pieces of bone here and there. It’s worth the trip just to hear the howls. 

Lobo, creature of the twilight hours, making a living in tough territory. It is said the gray wolf is second in intelligence only to man, which might explain why Manifest Destiny, fear, and misunderstanding caused settlers in the 19th and early 20th centuries to almost extirpate the species from the Lower 48. Didn’t need the competition.

With the passage of Proposition 114, the wolf re-introduction act in Colorado, there is a lot of talk about wolves — talk that seems new, much of it from people who have never seen a wolf, who have never studied wolves, and who seem to get most of their information from bar stools or barbershops. 

In the spirit of Manifest Destiny, we settled the wildlands, tamed the wilderness, as religion and many of our peers expected us to do, and part of that settlement was getting rid of the wolf. Animals were put on Earth for the use of man, the supreme being on the planet — so the thinking went. If an animal was not pleasing or useful to man, then that animal could be killed without consideration; man is judge, jury, and executioner, without regard for the animal. 

In our fervor to settle the wildlands, we killed the buffalo, killed or otherwise knee-capped the elk, antelope, and deer and replaced those wild things with domestic livestock. And then we killed the wolf, who didn’t fit — we couldn’t eat him or put him in harness — because the lack of game left him few choices other than domestic animals. Our unerring human knack for messing with the natural order, creating unintended consequences, on display.  

It could be argued that it made sense in the beginning, as settlers moved west, and cattle and sheep ranches came into vogue; but it was some sort of systemic hatred of wolves, a sort of groupthink endemic in our thinking, a derangement syndrome, that enabled us to keep killing wolves long after we’d whittled their numbers down to a satisfactory amount for coexistence with 19th and 20th century settlers. 

In 1916, Wallis Huidekoper, president of the Montana Stock Growers’ Association said: “It is a well-known fact that stock-killing individuals among wolves are only a small portion of their kind inhabiting a given area.” Words to remember today as we try to bring ranchers and wolf re-introduction advocates into some sort of workable plan going forward. It’s no secret that domestic and feral dogs are responsible for many of the livestock losses blamed on wolves. 

The above words don’t seem to be mentioned very often in conversations about wolves. In the past, we’ve strangled wolf pups to death in their dens; we’ve wired their mouths shut, so they would starve; dens were dynamited; wolves covered with gasoline and lit on fire. Roped and dragged to death behind horses. Or worse.  

We killed hundreds of thousands of wolves back in the day to the point we almost made them extinct in the Lower 48. No one can fault a man for protecting his property in a reasonable fashion, and there’s no argument that some of those killings were justified; but for the majority, they were done with malice and cruelty to a species without justifiable reason. 

As the yellow eyes of the wild ones look back at us, it is perhaps time to own up to the great tragedy we laid upon them, and somehow try to make it right again. Maybe the wolf re-introduction plan in Colorado will go a long way toward making that happen.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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