by Troy Hoepker

Minnesota and Wisconsin wolf populations have grown to numbers not seen in over a century when they were nearly hunted and trapped out of existence in the lower 48 states. Each of our neighbors to the north had their first controversial wolf hunting seasons in 2012 since the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act. With the revival of the wolf, Iowans are curious to know if wolf sightings will be on the rise in our state.

The gray wolf was placed on the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Areas of Northern Minnesota were the last places in the contiguous United States to retain a wolf population. Since that time, wolf numbers have grown to as much as three to four thousand, maybe more, and the population has grown in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan as well. Minnesota’s season ended January 3rd when the quota of 400 wolves was met. It took slightly over two months for Wisconsin hunters and trappers to reach their 115-wolf quota. The terrain of the Northern 1/3 of Minnesota has sustained the entire state’s wolf population for a long time. Are they moving south though? That’s the question I put to Minnesota DNR Wolf Specialist Dan Stark. “We just haven’t seen that big of a shift change in expansion into the South-Central part of the state. It’s been more to the east in areas of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan. We’ve not seen any wolves establish in the southern areas of Minnesota. Wolves just won’t establish in more open landscape like heavily row cropped areas or places where human densities are high.”

While individual packs and collared wolves have only shown a slight movement to the south in the last couple of decades, Stark said that the occasional roamer is not out of question. “Primarily younger wolves in search of their own territory have, from time to time, traveled up to hundreds of miles away. There have been wolves killed even as far south as Missouri. Normally however, wolves occupy an area averaging 40 square miles in Minnesota. Their territory can be as small as 20 square miles up to 100 square miles.”

In 2000, a radio collared Michigan wolf was killed near Kirksville, Mo. That animal had to travel over 600 miles and likely went through Iowa on its journey since Kirksville lays just South of the Iowa state line. Another wolf was shot and killed in 2002 in Houston County Minnesota adjacent to Allamakee County, Iowa’s Northeastern most county. More recently in 2008, an Olmsted county Minnesota hunter accidentally mistook a wolf for a coyote and killed it near Rochester in Southeastern Minnesota. Yes, the occasional phone call trickles in to an Iowa DNR officer of a wolf sighting in Iowa, but they are few. It may just be a matter of time before we have a confirmed sighting or a validated gray wolf kill in Iowa.

Iowa DNR fur biologist Vince Evelsizer affirmed that there have not been any recent confirmed sightings or wolves killed in Iowa but acknowledged that the possibility of a stray wolf venturing this far south is not out of the realm of possibility from time to time especially in Northern Iowa. “Any wolf sighted or killed here would be a roaming wolf from another state. The Iowa DNR has never had a wolf reintroduction plan and does not plan to reintroduce wolves back into Iowa in the future.” Evelsizer also noted, “It is very unlikely that we would ever have any kind of established population in Iowa. Human densities and the lack of proper habitat and cover would make it very hard for wolves to gain a foothold here.”

Iowa may not hold any wolves today, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact Iowa’s prairies were once abundant with wolves. Two different sub-species of wolf occurred in Iowa. The gray (timber) wolf roamed the Eastern portion of the state, primarily the wooded northeastern portion and was mostly removed by the late 1800’s. The Great Plains wolf was also found in Iowa and followed the bison herds. There is much confusion in early record keeping and folklore from early settlers concerning wolves and coyotes. In those days and even into the early 1900’s coyotes were often referred to as “prairie wolves” so it is hard to differentiate what was a real wolf or just a smaller coyote when reading early stories from the settlers. Unless it was specifically mentioned that the animal in the story or recorded account was a gray wolf or a size of the animal is given, then there is a lot of confusion.

There are however, some accounts that appear to be true to actual wolf encounters in Iowa-land. Famed explorer, artist and writer George Catlin documented his many expeditions up the Missouri and Mississippi rivers around the time of the Blackhawk purchase in the early 1830’s. As told in his book, “The North American Indians” Catlin wrote of savagery that had rarely ever been witnessed up until those early American times when he documented the scene of a powerful bison surrounded by a pack of wolves. Catlin wrote:

“But a short time since, as one of my hunting companions and myself were returning to our encampment with our horses loaded with meat, we discovered at a distance, a huge bull, encircled with a gang of white wolves; we rode up as near as we could without driving them away, and being within pistol shot, we had a remarkably good view, where I sat for a few moments and made a sketch in my note-book; after which, we rode up and gave the signal for them to disperse, which they instantly did, withdrawing themselves to the distance of fifty or sixty rods, when we found, to our great surprise, that the animal had made desperate resistance, until his eyes were entirely eaten out of his head – the grizzle of his nose was mostly gone – his tongue was half eaten off, and the skin and flesh of his legs torn almost literally into strings. In this tattered and torn condition, the poor old veteran stood bracing up in the midst of his devourers, who had ceased hostilities for a few minutes, to enjoy a sort of parley, recovering strength and preparing to resume the attack in a few moments again. In this group, some were reclining to gain breath, whilst others were sneaking about and licking their chaps in anxiety for a renewal of the attack; and others, less lucky, had been crushed to death by the feet or the horns of the bull. I rode nearer to the pitiable object as he stood bleeding and trembling before me, and said to him, “Now is your time old fellow and you had better be off.” Though blind and nearly destroyed, there seemed evidently to be a recognition of a friend in me, as he straightened up, and, trembling with excitement, dashed off at full speed upon the prairie, in a straight line. We turned our horses and resumed our march and when we had advanced a mile or more, we looked back and on our left, where we saw again the ill-fated animal surrounded by his tormentors, to whose insatiable voracity he unquestionably soon fell a victim.”

Early settlers who had made their way West encountered wolves in daily life. The winter of 1856-1857 was one of the most severe experienced by the settlers in Northwest Iowa. Blizzards and intense cold lashed the countryside until spring. These pioneers, suffered food shortages just as the Indians that perpetrated the Spirit Lake massacre did. Two men made a hard, desperate journey from Woodbury County to Council Bluffs for supplies. Wolves were starving also and travel was dangerous because of the elements and the fear of wolf attack. One night they stayed with another pioneer whose dog had been targeted by hungry wolves. It was reported that in less than five minutes the faithful animal was reduced to bones.

Early settlers of Iowa quickly realized the need to diminish the coyote and wolf populations after being repeatedly raided of their poultry, sheep, pigs and cattle. The earliest means of hunting them were in the form of circular hunts. Circular hunts had become popular in states east of the Mississippi river and there is probably not a county in Iowa that didn’t have citizens participate in this method of hunting. A large group of men and boys would come out on an appointed day and form a rough circle that encompassed several miles of land. With horses and dogs they would then all converge towards the center of a designated portion of land thus driving all the wild animals into that area. Handlers held dogs in check until the organized hunt had closed in on the center, when they were released in unison to kill. Coyotes, wolves, deer and other game were taken in this way. Guns were rarely used because of the danger, but later, towards the turn of the century, this same method was used with firearms much like we still do today when executing deer drives.

Once county and state governments began to be bombarded by livestock depredation reports, they felt the need to take action. Bounties systems evolved even during territorial days. As early as 1841, Johnson county commissioners allowed four dollars to be paid to a man for four wolf scalps. Continually paying bounties drained the funds of poor communities quickly however and it became commonplace for hunters to be refused payments even after statehood was achieved. Finally in 1858, after several attempts to pass legislation regarding bounties, the first State law finally passed requiring the payment of bounties on wolves. County judges were to allow $1.50 on the scalp of each prairie wolf, lynx or wildcat and $3.00 for the large species of wolf. That bounty payment was reduced to $1.00 by the general assembly of 1860. Coyote and wolf numbers steadily declined for the next couple decades, as more and more people inhabited the land. In 1892 the bounty on wolves and coyotes was raised to $5.00 in effort to exterminate them from Iowa. By the turn of the century, it was thought that wolves should have been all but gone, but that wasn’t the case. An increasing number of coyotes were observed in Western Iowa and the timber wolf seemed to be on an increase in Eastern Iowa too. 1913 brought on an unprecedented figure of $20 on mature wolves and $4 on wolf cubs, quite a sum of money in those days.

During the spring of 1914 packs of timber wolves were attacking sheep in Lee and Henry counties and in 1915 a Gray wolf was chased in the streets of Keokuk until it was killed. Wolves were also being killed occasionally in the Western part of the state during that time. A Clarke County farmer killed a large timber wolf with the aid of his dog in 1920. The $20 wolf bounty lasted only six years – from 1913 to 1919 and during this period, the state spent almost $150,000 on coyote and wolf bounties. Conversely, the state spent upwards of a half million dollars for damage done to livestock and poultry by dogs, coyotes and wolves during that period. In 1919 the bounty was reduced to ten dollars, where it remained until 1933, after which, it was lowered to five dollars.

The Des Moines Register reported of farmers killing a wolf in Palo Alto county in 1936 and later in the same year Ervin Eddy trapped a large male wolf near Creston that was said to measure six feet from muzzle to tail tip. On November 19, 1939, eighty Remsen men gathered for the first “wolf hunt” of the season and returned in the afternoon with two large gray wolves. Plymouth county sportsman continued to hold a circular wolf hunt for years and made it a genuine social event.

The wolf’s eerie, spine-chilling howl has long since faded away from the Iowa landscape never to be heard again. Or will it? Perhaps, someone again someday, will hear the truly lonesome song of a rare intruder under a blue Iowa moon in reminiscence of days gone by.