When wolves were $2.50

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Last week a $10,000 reward was offered for helping catch the person or persons who shot one of the three white wolves in Yellowstone Park. A press release said she was a “well-known female wolf.”

Let us look back at state wolf history. In the years from 1883 to 1918, there were state and federal bounties paid for 80,730 wolves killed in Montana, which brought the estimated total of wild wolves taken in this state to over a half million since the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806.

Because the war on wolves in Montana presents mind-boggling figures for the number of kills and dollars spent, I am not going to run the entire fascinating history, but in this column and one or two more, I’ll give you a good picture. Let us go to the column for Aug. 26, 1987...

Wolves are constantly in the news these days as they struggle to reestablish themselves in Glacier Park and surrounding areas. The first legal state wolf killing since 1973 took place last week, when U.S. wildlife biologists shot a young adult male that had killed cattle and sheep north of Browning.

The average person doesn’t know siccum about wolves. What knowledge they have is too often gathered from tall tales handed down by the old folks, childhood memories of Disney cartoons, the Three Little Pigs, and, of course, our old European fable of Little Red Riding Hood.

The North American wolf is a big canine that lives on meat which it runs down and kills. It has a well-defined social system and a unique form of birth control. All members of a pack take care of the young. They do not attack or eat people. They seem to have been placed on Earth to regulate other animals like deer, elk, and moose, and on down to mice, gophers, and prairie dogs.

Before the white man came, there were wolves in every state, and the first bounty on them was placed by the Plymouth colony in 1630. Lewis and Clark’s journals of 1804 mentioned the “great numbers” of wolves, with especially large populations in what is now the Billings area. Ross Cox, the 18-year-old American Fur Company trader who came to the Flathead in the winter of 1813, mentioned in his diary the inability of the Flathead Indians to raise horses here because the wolves would get the colts. He said that was the reason the Flatheads annually purchased adult horses from their friends, the Nez Perce.

The first mountain men and trappers took very few wolves because they weren’t worth the trouble. However, as the beaver pelt market started down, the taking of wolves picked up, and fur traders in the upper Missouri saw sales jump from 20 pelts in 1850 to 3,000 in 1853. As late as 1860, the Montana population of the “Canis Lupus” was probably above 300,000. That was the time when many Teamsters, boatmen, and others who brought goods to gold miners began spending their winters killing wolves.

A good “wolfer” might make $3,000 a year, but the average was probably closer to $1,500. Besides the bad weather, the wolfers’ main problem was Indians, who hated the white men killing buffalo to put strychnine in the carcass and set traps. Many wolfers who didn’t turn up in the spring were figured to have been put out of business by an angry Sioux or Blackfoot.

There are two reports of up to 100 wolves being killed around one bait. A dozen was common. The 1873 price for a wolf hide at the trading post in Fort Benton was $2.50.

G. George Ostrom is an award-winning columnist from Kalispell.

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