The long-running political battles over wolf reintroduction in the West can seem fixed in amber: Environmentalists usually stand on one side and cattle growers on another, with the state and federal governments suspended somewhere in between. But as historian Jon Coleman makes clear in Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, these positions solidified only recently. The relationship between humans and wolves in the United States has a long and varied history.
With humor and
style, Coleman traces human-wolf interactions from Colonial New
England to the Midwestern frontier, then follows Mormon pioneers to
the Rocky Mountains. He asks why so many humans treated wolves
cruelly for centuries — especially since wolves almost never
threaten people — and why popular attitudes have lately
reversed themselves. One answer to the first question, Coleman
writes, can be found in "cattle and tall tales." European
immigrants to North America brought livestock that often wandered
unprotected into wolf habitat. The inevitable depredations, along
with the raft of anti-wolf folklore that humans brought from the
Old World, led to enthusiastic extermination campaigns.
Boston’s last wolf was killed in 1657; federal wolf hunters
finished the job three centuries later, when they "cleared the
animals from every region in the temperate United States in which a
human could grow a marketable plant or animal." Yet the government
also began to shift public sentiments in favor of wolves. Federal
scientists’ observations showed that wolves were not the
indiscriminate killers of folklore, says Coleman, and government
wolf hunters sentimentalized the last surviving wolves as
hard-bitten heroes. These new stories influenced an increasingly
urban population, one with little livestock to protect from
"Enlightenment and annihilation occurred in
tandem," writes Coleman. So it was, in the second half of the
previous century, that wolves were transformed from vermin to
Vicious: Wolves and Men in
Jon T. Coleman
Yale University Press,
Wandering into wolf territory
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