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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Big Bad Wolf?

Friday's Wisconsin State Journal contained a photo of a wolf in Kate Cassidy's Iowa County yard. Like the cougar sighting near Milton two weeks ago, this led us to look into the history of wolves in Wisconsin. We discovered that when white settlers dispersed across the state in the 1830s, wolves were everywhere.

Robert Ream (1809-1885), one of the first to arrive in Madison, was surrounded by wolves as he approached Madison in April 1838 and spent a sleepless night keeping them at bay. He recalled that as soon as their bacon was frying, he and his companions were greeted "in an incredibly short space of time by the surrounding of our camp with prairie wolves in droves. Then commenced such a snarling, fighting, barking, and howling as I never heard before or since. They made the night hideous, and kept up the music with a thousand and one variations until morning's dawn." For the next decade, Ream and his neighbors would compete to see who would control downtown Madison, people or wolves.

Wolves were so abundant on the hills where the Capitol and the University now stand that the first white residents couldn't keep pigs and cows around their homes. About 1840, Madison citizens got Dane County to establish a bounty on them, and a hunter named William Lawrence tried to systematically kill them off with steel traps. "But 'as their name was legion,'" Ream continued, "he found that process entirely too slow and resorted to poison; by a skillful distribution of strychnine, he succeeded in soon bringing in a large number of scalps and leaving a large number of their carcasses on the town site."

Despite such efforts, as late as 1844 wolves remained abundant in the woods that covered the isthmus and at the end of the decade they were still described as "innumerable" around the capital city. This 1847 letter called them "rather plenty" and described how one was killed on the shore of Lake Monona.

Over the next 20 years, as farms spread like prairie fires across the southern half of the state, the natural habitat for wolves and their prey shrank, while at the same time the number of cattle and other livestock expanded. Naturally, as their wild food supply disappeared, wolves turned to the new animals that humans had conveniently fenced and tethered. The contest between people and wolves that had been fought in the capital during the 1840s was re-enacted on a statewide scale over the following decades.

Farmers pressured the legislature for help, and lawmakers responded in 1865 with a bounty law that paid $5.00 for every dead wolf. In 1867-68, the state paid out $6,535 in bounties, for just over 1,300 wolf carcasses. The list of hunters receiving payment runs on for 10 pages in the Secretary of State's annual report for that fiscal year. The result of such a law is easy to imagine: by 1900, no timber wolves existed in the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin, according to the DNR.

The wolf bounty lasted almost a century (until 1957), and by 1960 wolves were thought to have been killed off entirely throughout the state. Biologist Richard Thiel found about 80 during a systematic survey of northern Wisconsin between 1969 and 1975, concluding that they had probably wandered in from Minnesota.

In 1974, the federal Endangered Species Act gave them protection, and wolves have slowly regained their health. The Dept. of Natural Resources estimates that there are 500 to 600 wolves in Wisconsin today. The challenge now, as UW professor Lisa Naughton told the State Journal Friday, will be "figuring out how we're going to coexist with wolves and share this space." We presumably have more wisdom in such matters than our forebears did 150 years ago.

:: Posted in Animals on February 16, 2008

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