Wandering into wolf territory

by Michelle Nijhuis

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 predators.

"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 calendar pinups.

Vicious: Wolves and Men in America
Jon T. Coleman
278 pages, hardcover $28.
Yale University Press, 2004. © High Country News