Sunday, March 6, 2016

Dancing with Wolves...

In recent years Iowans have been surprised to discover in their urban and suburban communities increasing numbers of wild and dangerous animals. Perhaps most shocking have been the encounters with mountain lions: in 2011 in Iowa City; in 2012 in Des Moines; in 2013 in Sioux County, near Sioux City; and again that same year in Altoona.The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that between 1995 and 2013 there were thirteen confirmed sightings (along with numerous unconfirmed reports). Meanwhile, sightings of black bears, once native to Iowa, have also been on the rise, as a cluster of 2014 reports indicates. In the age of easy video recording, one can easily locate videos of black bears in people's back yards. And in 2014, for the first time in decades, a wolf was sighted in Iowa, a hunter in Buchanan county having shot an animal he mistook for a coyote. A few months later an almost identical scenario played out, and another wolf was confirmed dead in Iowa (Jones County). Almost certainly these wolves had wandered into northeast Iowa from either Minnesota or Wisconsin where gray wolves have long been established, but their appearance in Iowa provoked considerable surprise, since wolves had practically disappeared in Iowa, the last sightings having been almost seventy-five years ago.
2014 Iowa Department of Natural Resources map of wolf sightings
Having read these stories, I fell to wondering about early Grinnell and what its residents' experience with wild predators had been. As regular readers of this blog might recall, one reason I gave for offering these bite-size pieces of history was the conviction that we require some assistance to realize that things were not always the same as they are now. The story of Iowa's experience with wolves nicely illustrates the point, and effectively brings Grinnell into that story.
In a 1940 article published in Iowa Journal of History and Politics (reprinted in 1960 in The Palimpsest), William J. Petersen brought together an enormous collection of reports on "Wolves in Iowa." Many were the early Iowa diarists and reporters who claimed "the howling of wolves made night hideous," and the animals' frequent presence obliged settlers to devise strategies by which to protect themselves and preserve their supplies. Petersen cited a Marshall County woman who, in the middle of the nineteenth century and without a basement, suspended smoked hams and shoulders from the outside eaves of her cabin. The dangling meats taunted the wolves, who gathered around the cabin at night and "practice[d] 'light gymnastics there in rows, leaping up to reach the coveted plunder.'" Other reports make clear that the wolves were no joke, and that at least occasionally they took not only dogs and other animals, but also people who found themselves beset by packs of hungry animals.

In this context the settlers first undertook their own solutions to the problem, organizing "circular wolf hunts" with the help of dogs and horses, trapping wolves within the circle and dispatching the animals. Gradually government inserted itself into this problem, with counties issuing bounties for wolves. Once Iowa had become a state, legislators attempted to regularize bounty practice. In 1856 J. B. Grinnell introduced a bill to "protect the wool growers from the destruction of wolves," but that bill failed. Two years later, on the initiative of a legislator from Delaware County, a new bill "allowing a Bounty upon the scalps of certain Animals" successfully passed the legislature and was signed into law. The measure provided bounties of $1.50 for several animals and $3.00 for the "large species of Wolves known as the Timber Wolf." Controversy immediately ensued, in part because treasuries were insufficient to keep up with the claims, with the result that the bounty was lowered to $1.00 until 1892, when the State Sheep-Breeders and Wool-Growers Association campaigned for a $5.00 bounty for an adult wolf and $2.00 for a wolf cub.

Here again the city of Grinnell played a part in the story. Petersen quotes an 1892 complaint of A. J. Blakely of Grinnell, who argued for the elimination of what he called the "trifling and unequal bounties" against the wolf and the establishment instead of a "State bounty of $20 for the scalps of old wolves and $5 for the young ones." Why? Because, said Blakely, "real wolves, large wolves prowl over the Iowa farms in increasing numbers, seeking what they may devour." Blakely, who had withstood Pickett's charge at Gettysburg in 1863, was someone to believe.

Readers of the Grinnell Herald will have encountered stories of wolf predation in the immediate neighborhood. An 1891 newspaper snippet reported rather casually on a successful kill by Mr. Edward Lincoln, who found a wolf at work among the turkeys on his farm in Washington Township near Oak Grove. According to the newspaper, the wolf was only one of many who victimized livestock that year.
Grinnell Herald 20 June 1891
Wolves were apparently so usual that even college students took time out from their books to take part in hunts. An 1891 issue of The Unit, a publication that reported on college and alumni activities, listed, along with more prosaic notices of new books, sickness and injuries, new classes, and the dissolution of a club, an occasion that drew "several of the boys" into a wolf hunt.
The Unit, vol. 2 (1891):158
Certainly the Iowa sheep-farmer had reason to worry, even if legislators did not grant his wished-for change in the law. Time overcame government resistance, however, and by 1913 a $20 bounty was established. Still, the wolves refused to go away, continuing to attack sheep and other livestock. Petersen reports that between 1913 and 1919 the state paid out almost $150,000 on wolf bounties, most of which came from rural sites. All the same, even city folk in this era encountered wolves; Petersen cites a case from Keokuk where in February, 1915 a wolf was spotted in a vacant lot on Fifth Street, between Bank and Times streets; later the wolf was caught trying to raid a chicken coop.

In the early twentieth century wolf bounties were being claimed at such a rate that in 1919 the payout was reduced to ten dollars. Still government treasuries continued to hemorrhage at an astonishing rate—by Petersen's count, another $150,000 between 1920 and 1932. In 1933 the wolf bounty was reduced ($5) once again, but claims continued, the largest payouts coming in counties along the Missouri River.

In central Iowa, however, bounty payments fell off steeply in these years. According to Petersen's calculations, in the twenty years after 1918, Jasper County paid out some $1800 and Tama County $1605; Mahaska County, on the other hand, in that same period paid only $270 in wolf bounties, Marshall $645, and Poweshiek just $568. Poweshiek County Financial Reports, which Dorrie Lalonde kindly investigated for me, document the diminishing claims on wolf bounties: $56 in 1923, $60 in 1926, and only $10 in 1929. Wolves were obviously in retreat.
In other words, as today we witness the faint revival of wolves and other predators who once were common in central Iowa, we can better understand how different a world of fauna our ancestors encountered. We might argue about whether all the efforts to extirpate these animals was wise, but what cannot be contested is how different a world it was. If, therefore, you happen to spot a wolf or bear in your backyard, try to think about our Grinnell predecessors and the world in which they lived with these animals.

1 comment:

  1. Another story from early Grinnell might be of interest. In winter 1855, a Mrs. Patterson, who lived west of Sugar Creek, died of apoplexy. Mourners climbed the steep hill of Hazelwood Cemetery, and they laid sod over her grave after a solemn funeral, making hers the first burial in Hazelwood. Sometime after the burial, prowling wolves desecrated Mrs. Patterson’s grave. Outraged men trapped the wolves and wore their fur.
    (Sources: 1. Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, Men and Events of 40 Years, pg. 107; and
    2. Ray & Frisbie, “Early History of Grinnell, Iowa, 1854-1875,” pg. 31)