The Legends of the Outlaw Wolves

I’ve read one of Steve Grooms’ books, ‘The Return of the Wolf.’ It’s worth a read if you like wolves or wildlife.

Part I
by Steve Grooms in International Wolf Magazine
What names they had! They were called such things as the Three-Legged Scoundrel, Lobo the Giant Killer Wolf of the North, the Phantom Wolf of Big Salt Wash, Badlands Billy, and the Werewolf of Nut Lake. Then there were all the "toe wolves": Old Three Toes, Old Two Toes and-you guessed it-Old One Toe.
If these names sound a bit romantic, they were probably meant to. Throughout history, a few wolves have managed to escape the obscurity typical of their kind and have acquired fame and a name. At least 59 North American wolves became famous enough to be labeled with a name. With a few exceptions, most of these wolves with names were among the very last survivors of the great campaign to extirpate wolves from the Great Plains in the 1920's. Some stories about the deaths of old outlaw wolves carried a note of regret These were not ordinary wolves. These were the ghostlike wolves that no hunter or trapper could defeat, and some of the frustrated men pursuing them believed they had supernatural abilities. Because each of these "outlaw" wolves was responsible for destroying great numbers of livestock, they were regarded as menace to society, much like the bank robbers and gunslingers of the Old West.
Like human outlaws, these wolves sometimes carried rewards on their heads and were hunted relentlessly until finally destroyed. The skillful and enterprising men who triumphed over a famous renegade wolf might acquire the sort of notoriety associated with someone like Pat Garrett when he killed Billy the Kid, or Frank Hamer when he ended the careers of Bonnie and Clyde. When a notorious old cattle killer was finally destroyed, its demise would be celebrated in newspaper stories all over the region. The stories would note with approval that the death of this wolf made the world safer for livestock.
Yet the disappearance of the last and most famous wolves often seemed symbolically linked to the passing of all that had been wild and exciting in the region. Some stories about the deaths of old outlaw wolves carried a note of regret, as if the writer understood that a world without these wolves would be a less interesting place. Some of the men who triumphed over famous wolves reflected the same ambivalence. Consider the reflections of Earl Neill, the man who shot the White Wolf of the Judith Basin: And do you know, I almost didn't shoot. It was the hardest thing I think I ever did..I thought swiftly that these were the hills over which he had hunted. I knew that it was the cruel nature of the wilderness-the fight for survival of the fittest-that made him the ferocious hunter that he was. I thought of all the men that had hunted him, of how his fame had gone out all over the country, and I almost didn't shoot. 
An even odder confrontation ended the career of Rags the Digger. Rags was named for his shaggy coat and amazing ability to discover traps and dig them up. He seemed to be flaunting his contempt for the trappers pursuing him. Trapper Bill Caywood finally derived a way of using that quirky habit to his advantage, luring Rags into a setup that clamped two big traps on him. Rags dragged the traps painfully through heavy brush, leaving a trail that pressed Caywood with the courage of the old wolf. When Caywood got off his horse to confront Rags, the wolf astonished him by walking toward him. Caywood's rifle failed to fire twice. Caywood wondered if the wolf was going to attack him, then wondered if Rags might be seeking his help in getting the traps off. Rags kept limping closer. The rifle fired on the third try, and Rags died with his muzzle almost touching Caywood's boot. Stroking the pelt of the shaggy wolf he'd pursued for months, Caywood said, "You poor, lonely old murdering devil!" 
The many legends passed down about different outlaw wolves are surprisingly similar. At least four qualities were commonly ascribed to these wolves with names. Above all, they seemed exceptionally wary, intelligent, and elusive. They seemed to have paranormal powers for evading their hunters. Lured by a bounty equivalent to two year's salary, countless cowboys and "wolfers" pursued the White Wolf of the Judith Basin without success. One man pursued the Custer Wolf four years before giving up. Another gave up after five years. 

Many of these wolves were terribly destructive, engaging in what we now call "surplus killing." Livestock losses ascribed to the Judith Basin Wolf totaled a third of a million dollars (in today's dollars). A wolf named Blanca and a pack member reportedly killed 250 sheep in a single night. Some renegades maimed livestock they did not kill, for example, by biting off part of their tail(called "bobtailing"). Some ranchers claimed they were driven out of the livestock business by the depredations of famous wolves.
Although wolves are one of the most social species known, most outlaws were loners. Many were alone simply because the rest of their kind had been wiped out, but others seemed to live alone by choice. One odd exception was the Custer Wolf. After his family was destroyed, the Custer Wolf never again associated with wolves, but for some time ran with a pair of coyotes, apparently using them as part of his defense system.
The famous wolves often ranged over great distances. Several were thought to have roamed territories comprising several hundred square miles. This made them less predictable and harder to find. Most outlaw wolves were physically distinctive. Many had missing toes, having lost them to traps. Most were reputed to be exceptionally big, but when a notorious wolf was killed, it often turned out to be unglamorously average. A remarkable number of outlaw wolves were white, possibly because so many of them were so old. The infamous Judith Basin wolf, a gaunt and hoary old animal when killed, was estimated to be 18 years old. Ranchers claimed Old Whitey of Bear Springs, Mesa depredated a region of Colorado for 15 years. 

In an age when it was almost a miracle for any wolf to escape death, outlaw wolves often lived longer than normal wolves. Some of these unusual wolves became famous in other ways. The den of Montana's Snowdrift and Lady Snowdrift was raided, and the pups were brought up in captivity. Two were trained to perform in Hollywood movies. Another became the camp mascot for Jack Dempsey as he prepared for a heavyweight championship fight.
A white wolf trapped as a pup on the ranch of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody was raised as a pet. It later escaped and became, according to a newspaper report, "a great white marauder" for ten years. When it was eventually killed, this wolf wore the collar the old buffalo hunter had placed on his neck. Wolves are among the most interesting and exciting animals on earth, and these famous old "outlaws" were some of the most fascinating wolves ever to have lived. 

But what is the modern student of wolves to make of these old legends, many of which seem improbable?

Steve Grooms (Author of The Return of the Wolf) (

Steve Grooms has been studying and writing about wolves since 1977. From 1976 through 1981 he was managing editor of Fins and Feathers Magazine. He is the author of 13 books on pheasant hunting, outdoor philosophy and humor, natural history, fishing and fishing boats, trophy deer, health, cooking – even a memoir. Earlier editions of Return of the Wolf won endorsement from the National Wildlife Federation; it appeals to the general public but has also been used as a textbook. Steve is a member of the International Wolf Center and serves on the Center’s magazine committee. He lives in St. Paul, MN and has spotted five wolves on his way to his cabin in Cornucopia, WI.Main photographer Michael H. Francis, trained as a wildlife biologist, is a wildlife photographer based in Montana. His photography has been internationally recognized for its beautiful and informative imagery. Michael’s work has been published by the National Geographic Society, The Audubon Society, The National Wildlife Federation, as well as by Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield magazines, among others.

Uncovering The Realities Behind "Outlaw" Wolf Legends
Part II
by Steve Grooms
In the last issue of International Wolf, we discussed a few of the fascinating legends surrounding famous wolves with names, often called "outlaw" wolves. From time to time, particular wolves have become famous. This was especially common in the Great Plains states during the early decades of the 20th century. When most wolves had been extirpated from a region, sometimes a few remarkable individuals survived against great odds. These were often given a name. 
Many of them became semi-romantic celebrities, something like human outlaws, and their exploits were publicized in regional newspapers. They were pursued relentlessly. At least 150 men hunted Three Toes of Harding County during the 13 years the wolf preyed on cattle in a region of South Dakota. These legendary wolves inspired many thrilling and puzzling stories. People talked about them as if they had magic abilities to avoid bullets, traps and poisons. Often they were accused of wanton depredation on livestock. Many named wolves were described as physically distinctive, being an unusual color or larger than average wolves. Many were loners. Their exploits were the stuff of campfire legends.
But these stories, while fun to read, raise problems for modern students of wolves because they present such a strange picture of wolves. Wolves do not have supernatural abilities, and their ranges aren't nearly as extensive as described in the old stories. Wolves are not the huge monsters depicted in the legends. In general, reading these old tales leaves the impression the authors weren't willing to let facts get in the way of a good story.
What can we make of these stories now? How can we separate myth from reality in these old, semi-authenticated stories? This sketch shows the infamous Lobo, the dark wolf in the foreground with his mate Blanca standing behind him. This drawing was adapted from a sketch by Ernest T. Seton, who wrote the book, Wild Animals I have known, published in 1904 by Charles-Scribner & Sons. In their paper, "Accounts of Famous North American Wolves," Philip Gipson and Warren Ballard attempt to reconcile fact with fiction for 59 famous wolves. In the end, the authors conclude that many stories are "exaggerated, inaccurate or fabricated." Whenever we have evidence to check old legends-such as skeletal remains, taxidermy mounts, old records or photos-the provable fact often dashes cold water on the old legends. One source of inaccuracy might have been the bias of those writing the reports. Freelance "wolfers" and governmental agents working to extirpate wolves had an incentive to exaggerate the exploits of depredating wolves. Glorifying outlaw wolves glorified their own work and argued for continued funding of it. 

Many tales of renegade wolves come from the same source, Stanley P. Young. Young, none of the earliest scientists interested in wolves, believed that wolves were such a hazard to wild game and livestock that they needed to be controlled. Gipson and Ballard conclude that Young's anti-wolf bias encouraged him to fabricate and speculate when retelling stories of outlaw wolves. Cattlemen had their own reasons to exaggerate. If a rancher's inattention caused a heifer to drown, he might prefer to tell his buddies that "Old Clubfoot" had struck again. Missouri's Jesse James used to read newspaper accounts that had him holding up banks in three states on the same day. 

The same phenom  apparent with these wolf tales. Some stories about famous wolves are outright lies. A good example is Ernest Thompson Seton's maudlin tale, "Lobo, King of the Currumpaw." Seton claimed that Lobo died of a broken heart. But the skeleton of Lobo, which exists in a museum today, has a fresh bullet hole in the skull. Skeletal remains suggest that the size of renegade wolves was routinely exaggerated. Some old photos prove that the sex of famous outlaws was improperly reported. For many different reasons, the people who created these legends just weren't as careful with the facts as they should have been.
Yet we should not totally dismiss all tales of outlaw wolves. It is not difficult to understand why so many stories ascribed strange behavior to the old outlaws. Many famous wolves were loners for the obvious reason that the campaign to eradicate wolves had almost been completed. A great many of these wolves operated in the first three decades of the last century, a time when trapping, and particularly poisoning, had almost eliminated all wolves. So few wolves remained alive that they could not form normal pack social structures. We can also speculate about why some of these old famous wolves were claimed to hunt such large territories. Since few wolves were alive, the survivors did not need to defend a territory against other wolves, and were uniquely free to roam opportunistically. And since it was easier for wolfers to find and kill any wolves that operated in a small region, wolf eradication programs would tend to eliminate wolves with small territories but not kill those with less predictable habits.
It also makes sense that these last wolves would attack so many cattle and sheep, even though wolves normally select wild game as their prey. Toward the end of the 19th century, unregulated market and sport hunting had depleted populations of wild game. Before modern management techniques restored game populations, game herds fell to dangerously low levels. The last wolves alive were almost forced to attack livestock. According to Animals Under The Rainbow, by Aloysius Roche (published by The Broad Water Press Limited, 1952), monks during the 12th century fed wolves and regarded them as creatures created by God during a time when wolves were severely persecuted. This drawing depicts the allegedly true story of a wolf St. Francis of Assisi fed to keep it from being driven by hunger to attack the local people.
We can even understand, at least in a general way, why some of these wolves behaved in ways not normal for wolves. Most of the famous wolves lived during a period that was extraordinary. Exploitation pressures were ferocious. Normal pack structures had been destroyed, and the survivors were often forced to live as solitary individuals. The natural prey base had been almost eliminated. It is hard to imagine how a wolf in such abnormal times could possibly have behaved "normally." Often the wolves themselves were physically abnormal. Many were disabled as a result of being shot, trapped or snared. The most common injury was the loss of one or more toes to traps. Many of these wolves were old, some so old they had poor teeth. These so-called "gummers" had to resort to unusual tactics to get prey. Several famous wolves were hybrids, not surprising in view of the fact that wolves that are deprived of the chance to mate with other wolves will sometimes mate with dogs. It even makes sense that these outlaw wolves were exceptionally hard to eliminate. The last survivors of such a ferocious campaign of persecution would naturally be highly wary. Some famous wolves might have survived because they simply happened to have unusual habits. Wolves that behaved typically were readily killed by techniques targeted to kill typical wolves. Wolves with unconventional habits, whether those animals were exceptionally smart or not, didn't so easily fall prey to techniques invented to kill conventional wolves.
For example, one wolf famous for her resistance to traps baited with scents was found to have no sense of smell. Her legendary elusiveness was a happy accident arising from a disability. We can enjoy these old tales today, for they are thrilling stories. But we should not too easily accept them as truthful, even though most were based on elements of truth. The careful reader will enjoy these old legends but not accept them at face value. Above all, modern fans if wolves should not form general opinions about wolves based on the reported exploits of these unusual animals. 

Modern wolves are not nearly as destructive as the legends of the outlaws would lead us to assume. At the same time, wolves are not generally as elusive and canny about humans as the outlaw legends suggest. Outlaw wolves are fascinating because they were so exceptional. For this reason, we should not acquire distorted notions of what normal wolves are like based on the anguished anguished last days of the last wolves living before modern wolf restoration began. 
Steve Grooms is the author of several books, including a popular book on wolves and wolf restoration in the United States, Return of the Wolf, which he just revised. A writer living in Saint Paul, he serves on International Wolf magazine's advisory committee.

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