Teddy and the Big Assed Wolves

By Bob FerrisHunting the Grisly

"The wolf is the arch type of ravin, the beast of waste and desolation. It is still found scattered thinly throughout all the wilder portions of the United States, but has everywhere retreated from the advance of civilization." from Hunting the Grisly and Other Sketches by Theodore Roosevelt  originally published in this form in 1902

Teddy Roosevelt was a lot of things in his life, but he was never a fan of wolves.  In fact, he once characterized them (see above quote) as a beast of waste and desolation.  Fair enough and very consistent with the prevailing view of the day held by both the general public and scientists near the turn of the last century.  But what is probably more relevant to our current debates is what Teddy would say today.  

My sense is that his view in present times would be similar to mine.  My reason for thinking that way is that Roosevelt was both a scientist and a scholar who prided himself on being at or near the bleeding edge of the field.  Please remember that this was a man who often rode the wild plains of America with a copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in his saddle bags.  He was a what we would call today a “first adopter” and progressive thinker.  My sense too is that he would have gobbled up Aldo Leopold’s works and embraced both his science and philosophy.  But this is the stuff of speculation and campfire debates long into the night.

Returning to things that are not speculation, we know that Teddy was a renowned naturalist and wrote many books on natural history.  He was also a friend of some of the most famous wildlife scientists of those times and treated as a colleague.  These facts were reflected both in his breath of knowledge as well as his attention to detail.  These character traits are important as we look at his writings beyond his parroting of then-popular wolf sentiments.  I bring this up as anti-wolf folks are very anxious to quote the passage at the top of this piece and seem reluctant to look at other observations he made about wolves a few paragraphs later in the same work.

Buttercup: Westley, what about the R.O.U.S.'s? 
Westley: Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist.  from The Princess Bride (1987)

All of us who work on wolf conservation have had to suffer wolf myths and one of the most enduring is the one about the size of wolves reintroduced in Idaho and central Idaho (i.e., the Northern Rockies) versus those wolves that once haunted the wilds of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  To listen to these Monday (or Tuesday) morning quarterbacks great efforts were taken to capture wolves of unusual size (WOUS) and with Canadian flags tattooed somewhere on their oversized bodies.  

"The great timber wolf of the central and northern chains of the Rockies and coast ranges is in every way a more formidable creature than the buffalo wolf of the plains, although they  intergrade. The skins and skulls of the wolves of north-western Montana and Washington which I have seen were quite as large and showed quite as stout claws and teeth as the skins and skulls of Russian and Scandinavian wolves, and I believe that these great timber wolves are in every way as formidable as their Old World kinsfolk." from Hunting the Grisly and other Sketches by Theodore Roosevelt originally published in this form in 1902 

Further, these anti-wolf souls claim that the Northern Rockies wolf of old was a kinder and gentler version of the rapacious beasts we careless biologists threw in the states so casually and "illegally."  Their arguments are that the wolves that their grandfathers and great grandfathers knew were Lilliputian compared to the ill-behaved louts they have now.  Their former wolves were in the 60-70 pound class and smaller than the so-called buffalo or plains wolves.  Their belief in this is so strong that they have subjected the rest of us to a parade of badly photoshopped wolves with dimensions that appear approach those of baby elephants. 

"A full-grown dog-wolf of the northern Rockies, in exceptional instances, reaches a height of thirty-two inches and a weight of 130 pounds; a big buffalo wolf of the upper Missouri stands thirty or thirty-one inches at the shoulder and weighs about 110 pounds. A Texas wolf may not reach over eighty pounds. The bitch-wolves are smaller; and moreover there is often great variation even in the wolves of closely neighboring localities." from Hunting the Grisly and other Sketches by Theodore Roosevelt originally published in this form in 1902

But Teddy in his contemporary observations of these historic wolves from the winter of 1892-1893 and other times, paints a very different picture.  He singles out these wolves of the Northwest forests and Northern Rockies as being bigger than those of the plains and specifically mentions western Montana, Idaho and Washington as well as the wolves of the coastal Pacific Northwest (see Chapter VIII here for full text).   

Now certainly there are size variations, as Mr. Roosevelt points out, and young animals taken in summer are obviously smaller and perhaps more prone to be observed or shot.  But these caveats hardly explain all of the strength and vehemence of the claims of those wanting the world to believe that the “wrong” wolves were placed in Yellowstone and central Idaho.  This willingness to embrace myths in the absence of compelling evidence is one of the factors that truly separate those who see wolf recovery simply as an invasion of oversized, foreign beasts from those who celebrate the return of selective forces and an important ecological actor to our western landscapes.  

3 Responses to Teddy and the Big Assed Wolves

  1. Julie Gallegos says:

    Thank you for the measure of sanity and a reality check re: "Canadian wolves are bigger than — whatever was here before"!

  2. BobMc says:

    Here is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that I use often in cougar outreach:

    “It is true, as I have said, that a cougar will follow a man; but then a weasel will sometimes do the same thing. Whatever the cougar's motive, it is certain that in the immense majority of cases there is not the slightest danger of his attacking the man he follows.”  (BiblioBazaar (2009) The Roosevelt Book: Selections from the Writings of Theodore Roosevelt, p 183)

     

  3. Peter Nelson says:

    Nice essay Bob…has anyone looked at old skulls from wolves collected in these different regions? Any data to support/refute some of these ideas? Surely there must be a few specimens in the museum drawers…Peter

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