To Catch A Wolf – Part IV
February 23, 2009
Before we venture into some of the Scandinavian countries to examine how they dealt with wolves and wolf problems, let’s visit for a moment right here in the United States. It is believed that several subspecies of wolves inhabited much of the U.S. at one point in time.
Teddy Roosevelt went to great pains in some of his writings of the late 1800s in describing the different kinds of wolves he encountered all across the nation. He related colors, sizes, characteristics and habitats of any of these predators he came in contact with. One thing Roosevelt tells us is that even though he believed that man’s efforts to get rid of wolves certainly had a significant affect, he was convinced there was something more than man’s effort at hunting, trapping, poisons, etc. that wiped out wolf populations.
What is different about Americans dealing with wolves and many of the other European and Asian countries we have looked at, was the fact that Americans were readily armed with guns and could not only protect themselves from large predators but they actively hunted and trapped the animal as it was part of the heritage.
In areas of France and Russia, most guns were banned and only wealthy and governmental connected people could posses a gun. In cases where the peasant population could own a gun seldom could they afford to buy one or the ammunition to put in it.
As settlers in America moved into the forests and prairies of the west, they encountered wolves. Not unlike those in Russia, France, Italy, India and any other country that had wolves, it didn’t take long for people to grow to dislike the wolf, especially when it began killing off livestock and threatening the children and other settlers.
Having the weapons to do so, these settlers, turned hunters and trappers, began to kill off the wolves in many parts of the country.
In parts I, II and III of “To Catch a Wolf”, we’ve looked at some of the different methods employed by the government, wealthy hunters and peasant trappers to kill wolves. We’ve established that the wolf was clearly despised by the people and often times their lives were controlled by the fear of getting attacked by wolves or having their livestock destroyed. People risked their lives with wolves in order to avoid starvation.
Here in America, we don’t have the long and storied history of wolves like our friends across the ocean. Our experiences were somewhat different and short lived in comparison. Our access to the tools used to kill wolves, in comparison, seems so much easier but the creativity of devising ways to mass kill wolves wasn’t lacking.
In 1854, Hurst and Blackett published Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s book, “The Americans at Home: Or, Byeways, Backwoods, and Prairies”. In that book is a chapter titled, “Wolf-Hunting on the Turkisag“. This is one account of a seemingly bizarre, daring, if not ignorant, rough and tumble wolf hunt, one that takes place under the full of the moon and putting every participant in danger of their lives.
I tried and failed to find out where the Turkisag was. Assuming it was a mapped out place or location, I searched and found nothing. I began then to look more closely at the word itself and with knowledge that this book was written in the mid-1800s, I wondered if the Turkisag was a created word of local origin.
Turk or turki relates to either the country of Turkey or the bird animal turkey. Sag used as a description could mean a depression, a valley, maybe even a hollow or some such. It is only a guess on my part but I thought maybe Turkisag came literally from the turkey sag. I might be completely wrong and would welcome any explanations.
Regardless of what or where Turkisag was, the author Haliburton, gives us a bit of a description of the area.
It was broad moonlight when we arrived at the place selected as the scene of operations. The Turkisag possesses a different aspect from the Blue Ridge. The latter is of a noble and magnificent description, but the scenery of the former is of a different order: there was an air of desolation hovering about it that produced feelings of awe, and you gazed around you as if in expectation of beholding something instinct with horror. Dark and gloomy caves or holes met your sight on every side; but where a level spot presented itself, it was thickly covered with trees, short, and of monstrous bulk, so that they nearly shut out the light of the moon in various places.
The stage is set for the hunt. There are around 50 men all armed with guns and ammunition and lots of it. Haliburton tells us that many times hunters/shooters can’t leave their posts for several days. This is after all the time of year when “wolves are the most ravenous, mustered in great numbers“.
This kind of wolf hunt is referred to as a “skirl“, being defined as a shrill and piercing sound. That name and description alone would be enough to send shivers up and down the spine.
One party locates a place where they will build a scaffolding, where shooters can lie in wait for the wolves. Read Haliburton’s depiction of the place and the construction.
The spot where we purposed to erect our scaffolding was in the dreariest place we could select, and, as it proved, where wolves were the most numerous. First, we all set to work with our axes, and cleared a space of about fifty feet in extent, by cutting down the smaller trees, leaving, of course, the larger ones standing. At the extreme west of this clear space, two scaffolds were erected after this wise: branches of trees were driven into the earth, six or eight inches apart, rising above the ground about eight feet; then a great quantity of brushwood was wove around them from the bottom to the top, presenting a strong basket or net-work; across the top were laid large branches, affording a tolerably firm flooring; and around the works props were placed, giving sufficient strength to the whole capable of bearing the weight of the party; a rude ladder was also made to enable us to ascend, but more particularly for the runner, whose share of the dangers of wolf- shooting was not inconsiderable. These scaffolds were built nearly on the edge of a precipice of about sixty feet in height; on the north-east, and about one hundred feet from us, arose a peak, stretching far above our heads, overhanging a gap in the mountain about twelve feet wide. The opposite point was somewhat lower than that on which we stood, making a considerable descent, leading round to the place where we were encamped. Before us appeared an interminable forest, with here and there a cave, the uncertain moonlight only adding to its repulsive appearance.
Did you pick up on the term “runner”? Frighteningly so, it is exactly as you might imagine. Two men are “selected”. God knows what process that is actually used to pick who will be the runners aside from the fact that they should be young, fit and able to run fast.
Their task is to head out into the forest to find the wolves. Then the runner has to get the wolves to chase him. Utilizing only the available moonlight and a few dimly lit torches, the runner must use his blazing speed to stay just ahead of the wolves while hopefully successfully negotiating the landscape in the darkness of night. One mistake and it’s toast.
The runner then must enter the scaffolding area in time to climb the ladder to safety and before the wolves catch him or the bullets hit him from when guns begin blasting at the wolves.
The author at one point writes that the runners take some kind of drug with them. Little is said about it so we can only guess as to whether it was something they thought would enhance their speed or awareness or maybe it was to quell the fear. Maybe it was even used for something else.
Then, taking from his pouch a drug, a piece of which they placed in their moccasins, and holding the remainder between their fingers,
Picture if you can how a shooter must be feeling. It is dark and you are stationed on a platform above an area set for ambush. You know that two men are being used as decoys and they are depending on you to kill the wolves before they get killed. Here’s how it began to unfold.
Presently a faint howl was heard, that caused the blood to rush to my heart. Nothing but actual experience can enable any one to form a correct estimate of the intense anxiety that a person labours under on such occasions. Again, another howl, more loud, then another—another, from every direction of the wood ; then simultaneously, a burst, as if from myriads, resounded through the wild, echoing from mount to mount, followed up by cries still more awful and terrific.
“Be ready!” said an old hunter beside me, in a tone that betrayed the excitement he felt, ” for we shall have work to do presently; ” and at that instant a wolf emerged from the wood into the open space, the torches revealing him plainly to our view. A dozen rifle balls in an instant pierced him. Another followed, glancing first at the torches, and then at us, as if uncertain what course to take.
” Be chary of your ammunition,” said the same hunter, “for we may need all we’ve got;” and he raised his rifle, as the wolf was turning back, and instantly brought him to the ground.
The terror and the stress is building. The air is filled with blood-curdling howls, shooters are unloading on one wolf and you are reminded not to waste your ammunition. With that all dancing in your mind, along with the fact two human beings are out there streaking through the forest and running in fear for their lives, you hope you won’t miss.
The first runner appears.
We could not discover the least sign of their proximity, and the awful howls now came thick upon our startled senses, borne upon the breeze that whistled past us. Suddenly we heard footsteps, and could detect the quick breathings of a person, followed close by the rush of multitudes of those ravenous beasts, and presently the form of Ralph was seen, darting like a winged bird towards the goal. Close upon his track are seen the wolves—they press upon him, their eyes gloating at the prospect of his becoming their victim—lie looks not behind—he gains the open space—already they clutch at his legs—he eludes their fangs, and with a spring reaches the ladder—the next moment he falls breathless upon the scaffold—he is Safe !
As the guns crack and the dead wolves begin to pile up, Haliburton’s description of what is taking place sheds some light on what the runners used the drugs they took with them for.
The gleam of the torches threw a fitful light on their protruding tongues and glaring eyeballs, as they ran to and fro, rendered frantic by the unnatural appearance of the flames, and the exciting nature of the drug used by the runners, so that they fell easy victims to our murderous fire, which, however, in no way appeared to check their onward rush.
Did the runners use some kind of bait or food laced with this drug to first feed the wolves? Obviously it appears as though the drug was used to alter their behavior.
But what of the second runner?
Appearing from the dark, through the midst of the chaos and frantic behaviors of both men and beast, the second runner appears, surrounded by wolves on both sides and from behind. He cannot make the ladder to safety.
Hunters open fire on the wolves and the runner is yelled at and told to try to jump the ravine ahead, knowing the odds of him making it were slim but doing nothing would result in being eaten alive by ravaging wolves.
The shooters continue to kill massive numbers of wolves until they run out of ammunition. The runner is left to his own desire and willpower to live. He opts for the ravine, jumps and doesn’t make it.
What possesses men that they would be driven to such extremes in order to kill wolves? Was this only about the hunt or was this something that had to be done to protect the people and their property?
Wherever the Turkisag was, make no mistake there seemed to be an endless population of wolves that night. How many got killed we know not but several and it cost one young man his life.
For several reasons, wolves in the United States where nearly wiped out. Efforts to get them back have led to great controversy and there is no end in sight to the bickering. Our knowledge and reality in dealing of wolves is so limited that some fear that the wolf populations here are growing at a disturbingly fast rate. With endless lawsuits blocking efforts to remove the wolf from federal protection, we may someday be forced into finding ways to mass kill wolves. Proper management can prevent that from happening.
My efforts here in bringing you these historic documents of how people have dealt with wolf problems worldwide, isn’t to advocate for the construction of wolf ambush slaughtering sites but only to educate people that protecting the wolf isn’t the same as protecting a non-predator. History shows us the devastation wolves can cause. We should have no desire for any of that.
If ever the day arrives that we can properly manage wolves, it will be a learning process to determine what tools will be required to control wolf populations. Sending one licensed hunter into the woods with one rifle believing this will be a viable tool to control populations is foolhardy and born of ignorance. Initially there might be some success but it won’t take long before the wolf figures this out. This is why Teddy Roosevelt said that the only way to hunt wolves was with a pack of well-trained hunting dogs.