Howling at the moon: The past and future of wolves in Eagle County | VailDaily.com

Howling at the moon: The past and future of wolves in Eagle County

Kathy Heicher
Eagle County Historical Society
Routt County ranchers pose with what is believed to be the last wolf trapped in that county. The year is 1924.
Photo courtesy of Jay Fetcher | Special to the Daily

Learn more about wolves in Eagle County

What: Talk by Colorado historian and author Andrew Gulliford, presented by the Eagle County Historical Society.

When: Thursday, June 13, 6:30 p.m.

Where: (Old) Exhibit Hall, Eagle County Fairgrounds, Eagle.

Cost: $10 cash at the door; ($5 for Historical Society members).

More information: Visit eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com.

From the 1890s through the 1920s, wolves wreaked havoc in Eagle County. Ranchers, particularly those who ran their cattle on Castle Peak and in the Derby Mesa country (northwestern Eagle County) suffered devastating losses of livestock. The predator attacks were notable for their brutality.

At the time, agriculture was a driving economic force in the county, with close to 400 working ranches. As ranch and livestock numbers increased, so did the number of gray wolves. The wild canines grew especially bold in the winter months, when finding food in the wild was more challenging. Calves confined within barbed wire fences were particularly vulnerable.

Rancher Frank Benton, who homesteaded on the Derby in 1915, once sent a ranch hand to a remote cow camp on Castle Peak to feed pasturing horses. During the night, a pack of wolves raided the pasture, hamstringing and killing several horses. Although the cowboy was armed with a .30-.30, he was too frightened to leave the cabin.

The ranchers targeted the predators with traps, poison, rifles and bounties. The Red Cliff-based Eagle County Blade newspaper reported in 1906 that gray wolves “make the night hideous in this vicinity.” The newspaper reported in a celebratory tone the shooting of a wolf on Turkey Creek by pioneer Salon Ackley; and the subsequent trapping of the wolf’s mate on Wearyman Creek by Jim Tague, who then slew the trapped animal with an ax.

The wolf issue in Eagle County came to a climax in the early 1920s, when a band of about a dozen wolves roaming Castle Peak, led by a particularly large, smart male wolf, relentlessly raided cattle pastures. The lead wolf was notable for the fact that it was three-legged, having left a paw in a trap several years previously. “Old Lefty,” as the animal was nicknamed, was savvy about men and traps and successful in protecting his pack from capture.

Frustrated, the local cattlemen called for government trappers to come in and wipe out the wolf pack. The U.S. Biological Survey sent in its most experienced man. The wit testing between a knowledgeable man and exceptionally smart animals went on for weeks. The trapper used his best techniques and tools. Lefty and his wolf pack evaded them. The boys working the Benton ranch were betting 5-to-1 odds that the government trapper would not catch Lefty within six months.

Ultimately, as was the case in man versus wolf throughout the West, the man won. By 1935, wolves had been completely eradicated from Eagle County and all of Colorado.

In 1929, former Forest Service surveyor-turned-conservationist Arthur Carhart, collaborating with Biological Survey trapper Stanley Young, wrote a book about the eradication of the last Colorado wolves. “Last Stand of the Pack” tells the dramatic stories of nine wolves, and the fierce battle between men and animals that characterized the settlement of the West. Two Eagle County wolves are featured in the book.

Although the original book has long been out of circulation, the published work re-emerged in 2017 in a critical edition edited by Andrew Gulliford and Tom Wolf. Both men are college professors, authors and historians. The new version of “Last Stand of the Pack: Critical Edition” includes the original text, plus additional chapters from ranchers, environmentalists and scholars offering mixed views on the topic of wolf reintroduction.

The Eagle County Historical Society will host Gulliford for a talk about the history and future of wolves in Eagle County on Thursday, June 13, at the old Exhibit Hall at the Eagle County Fairgrounds.

Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society. She can be reached at ECHS@eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com