Part 1 on the History of Wolves

Here is part 1 of an informative article on the history of wolves in America written by George Ostrom and published on

“When wolves first made a comeback into Glacier National Park from a pack coming down from Canada, I did a lot of research on their past history in the U.S. Few people have much past knowledge on what has now become the “new” game animal, so let me share some surprising facts:

Before the white man came, there were wolves in every state of the union, 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 had to make annual purchases of 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.

Montana’s population of the “canis lupus” as late as 1860 was probably above 300,000, and that was the time when many teamsters, boatmen and others who brought goods to the state’s new influx of 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 just to put strychnine in the carcass and to set traps around them. 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 separate early-day reports of up to a hundred wolves being killed around one bait. A dozen or so are common. The 1873 price for a wolf hide delivered at the trading post in Fort Benton was $2.50.

Some of the early trading post records are missing, but the best guesses are that from 1870 to 1877, there were well over 100,000 wolf hides loaded on the steamers at Fort Benton. In 1876, the Montana Legislature passed a law against shooting buffalo, but it was mainly ignored and the next couple of years saw those big beasts slaughtered down to nothing.

The wolves almost overnight lost their No. 1 food source; but there was a replacement, the big cattle drives out of Texas. It didn’t take the big lobos long to find that the longhorn cattle were easier to kill than a buffalo.

The 50-year war between ranchers and wolves began in earnest when the cowboys talked the 1883 legislature into passing the first of many varied and sometimes wild and expensive bounty laws. In the first year after that, there were 5,450 wolf pelts turned in for the dollar bounty. There was also a market of 50 cents to $2,50 for the hide.

During the next few years, the average number of bounty payments was around 2,500 per year. Then the disastrous winter of 86-87 wiped out thousands of cattle. Charles “Kid” Russell did his now famous painting with the starving longhorns in the snow being circled by hungry wolves. In ’87, the legislature dealt with a mushrooming ground squirrel and prairie dog population by adding them to the bounty list.

The result of that was to almost bankrupt the state, and in their anger, the politicians cut off all bounties. The cattlemen and sheepmen arose in great anger. T.C. Power, who raised cows and ran a fur trading company, said, “We lose more calves to wolves than we do to hard winters … We have been shipping 10,000 to 15,000 wolf skins a season. Now the wolf bounty has been abolished and there is no inducement ….”

The legislature fought against a new bounty but in 1891 reluctantly passed a bill that did not satisfy the cattlemen. The mining factions still ran things in Helena, and to add to the cowboy woes, the wolfers had turned to other fields, and the disappearance of secondary wolf prey such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep and antelope was causing the wolves to get down-right serious about eating more of the growing herds of domestic cattle.

A special state agriculture report for 1894 said “many stock farmers were despondent on account of great destruction of calves and colts by wild animals, especially wolves, and unless those losses could be diminished … it would mean the end of the breeding of cattle.”

To be continued next week.

G. George Ostrom is a national award-winning Hungry Horse News columnist. He lives in Kalispell.



3 responses to “Part 1 on the History of Wolves

  1. Really interesting. An appropriate rebuttal to the notion that wolves were “introduced” into the Yellowstone area and were not there originally. Thanks, Josh

  2. I agree, I’ll post the second part when it’s available

  3. Cool post 🙂 Very informative. I look forward to Pt 2. I include a quote…I think it is relevant to the subject material 🙂

    “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” ~ 20th Century American ecologist Aldo Leopold.

    In the hope of reaching the moon men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet ~ Albert Schweitzer

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