One bullet prompted regret

  • Leo Cottenoir with his trophy wolf

    Brandon Loomis

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The wolves are back, big time.

LANDER, Wyo. - The wolf head on the wall tucks its ears and bares its teeth at all who enter the living room of this 85-year-old retired sheep rancher.

This aging trophy with broken teeth is perhaps the last Yellowstone wolf that ran among elk and deer before extermination decades ago. Wolves also picked off sheep from time to time, which is why Leo Cottenoir lowered his Winchester .270 over the sage brush in May of 1943.

At the time, he thought he was protecting his property and, perhaps, himself. The part-Cowlitz Indian rancher remembered childhood stories about dangerous wolves, so he dropped the 90-pounder at 75 yards. Now, he might retract that shot if there were a way.

"It's the first law of nature - I thought he was after me and I was going to get him first," said Cottenoir. "Afterwards, I felt sorry because I thought that it was the only one I'd ever see, and I shot him."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted this specimen as the last wolf known to be shot in the Yellowstone region until a hunter killed one in the Teton Wilderness south of the park two years ago. Though the wolf is now protected in the region by the federal Endangered Species Act, the government did not prosecute in that case because the hunter said he mistook it for a coyote.

Tests proved the Teton Wilderness wolf was related to the wolves now recolonizing northwest Montana. The agency said it was probably a loner just passing through, rather than part of a new Yellowstone population.

Likewise, it is difficult to know whether the sheep rancher's trophy was a wanderer from the north, or a straggler hanging on in the wilds of northwest Wyoming. Since that time Cottenoir's been doing a lot of thinking about the animals; now he's convinced of their value in the West.

"I'm quite a religious man," said Cottenoir, the great-great-grandson of a French Canadian who helped build the first Catholic mission in southwest Washington. "I think God made the wolf and he's got just as much right to be here as any other God-given animal."

Even on the morning that Cottenoir nervously pulled his trigger, the gray wolf was thought to be long gone from the region. Cottenoir, from the Mount St. Helens area of Washington, married into the Shoshone Tribe in 1933 and moved to the Wind River Reservation. In his first 10 years here, he never saw a wolf, and fellow ranchers told him they and the government had finished off the canid before 1920.

Many of the surviving ranchers and their heirs now worry about seeing that extermination undone - having to deal with another menace to an already difficult business. Cottenoir understands those fears: He kept 1,000 sheep on the range for 20 years.

But watching over livestock and killing only those predators that cause problems is the best way to coexist, he said.

"It doesn't mean to let them overrun the country, but they can control them just like they do" other predators, he said. "(Ranchers) live with eagles and coyotes and bobcats. They can put up with wolves just as well as they can those."

Cottenoir, a hunter in his younger years, also dismisses fears that wolves will bite into big-game hunting.

"When people first came to the North American continent, there was elk, deer, antelope, rabbits. Wolves didn't deplete the population then, so why should they now?

"Man is the biggest damn predator around."

A shocking kill

Just after 5 a.m. on that morning in 1943, a sheepherder told Cottenoir he heard coyotes yipping near some newborn lambs at the southern base of the Owl Creek Mountains, on the north side of the reservation. Cottenoir rode his horse out to the area, where the lambs were protected by lanterns and flags to spook predators. From a distance, he saw what he thought were an adult coyote and two pups in a drainage called Muddy Creek.

When he approached, he realized the larger animal must be a wolf and the other two adult coyotes. He missed two shots, blaming nerves, but connected with a clean lung shot when the wolf turned and exposed his profile.

When he returned with a wolf, everyone from the sheriff to the editor of the local Wyoming State Journal was shocked. The bounty on wolves had been removed, so the sheriff offered the $5 bounty for coyotes. Cottenoir, sensing that this was a special animal, declined and took it to a taxidermist.

The price, $13.50, is still etched in pencil on the wooden backing.

For half a century, that dead wolf has looked down from the wall. Children and grandchildren have draped blankets over it to block its stare. Cottenoir has assembled something of a shrine for it, complete with wolf paintings, T-shirts and quotations from early-day naturalist John Muir.

Something happened to Cottenoir those decades ago when he first looked at this wolf, and then when he learned how rare it was. He became a wolf enthusiast. Now, in his later years, he says he wants to take the short drive up the highway to Yellowstone and see if he can't spot another one alive.

The writer works for the Idaho Falls Post Register.

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