First Encounters: Prairie Wolves and Coyotes

Wolves were mentioned frequently in the journals of Lewis and Clark and some of their men, but the explorers didn't write about the encounters with any sense of awe. Probably wolves were not completely unknown to the trekkers, since the canids were well-distributed around the country and the explorers had evidently seen them before, east of the Mississippi River. On July 21, 1804, near the mouth of the Platte River, Clark noted that there were "a Great number of wolves about us this evening."

In early September, Clark added, "I saw Several foxes & Killed a Elk & 2 Deer & Squirrels." At some point, the explorers decided that what they thought were big foxes were actually coyotes, which they had never seen. Historically, coyotes are animals of the West; they didn't begin showing up in great numbers in the East until the mid-20th century.

On October 20, 1804, Clark noted the relationship between bison and wolves: "I observe near all large gangues [herds] of Buffalo wolves and when the buffalo move those animals follow and feed on those that are killed by accident or those that are too pore or fat to Keep up with the gangue."

On April 22, 1805, Lewis described an eyewitness account of wolves attacking their favorite prey: "Capt Clark informed me that he saw a large drove of buffalo pursued by wolves today, that they at length caught a calf which was unable to keep up with the herd. The cows only defend their young so long as they are able to keep up with the herd, and seldom return any distance in search of them."

Most of the buffaloes and wolves were gone from their traditional ranges by the turn of the 19th century. After ranchers and farmers replaced Native Americans on the plains, wolves were killed on sight to the point that they were all but eliminated in the lower 48 states.

By the 1930s, only a few states in the West and upper Midwest had wolves. Even in those places, the wolf populations could be counted in the dozens. Coyotes have since moved into the ecological niche that once was occupied by their larger cousins. --Jim Zumbo