‘Old Lefty’ is a thing of the past | VailDaily.com

‘Old Lefty’ is a thing of the past

Allen Best

Wolves populated most of North America at one time. Although sometimes confused with coyotes, wolves are three to four times heavier, with males weighing an average 90 pounds. Here, as in Europe, wolves were seen as agents of darkness. To this day, “wolf” implies a greedy or cruel person, or a sexually aggressive or predatory man.Wolves disappeared from the West for two major reasons. First, the animals they ate disappeared. The bison herds wolf packs trailed were the first to go, and elk and deer then nearly disappeared.Then, even as deer and elk populations rebounded, the U.S. government set out to kill the lingering wolves. In 1915, the U.S. Biological Survey was created with responsibility to eliminate large predators from the public lands of the West. Using an arsenal of steel traps and lethal poisons, government agents stalked coyotes, mountain lions, and bears in addition to wolves.Burns Hole casualtyOne of the casualties of this campaign to eradicate wolves was an alpha male in the Burns Hole area given the name “Lefty.” As explained in a book called “The Last Stand of the Pack,” by Arthur Carhart and Stanley P. Young, Lefty had been given that name because, while escaping a leg-hold trap, he lost his right paw. Still, unable to catch Lefty, the cattlemen of the Castle Peak ranges enlisted the U.S. Biological Survey.The agency dispatched a hunter named Bert Hegeva. Working from a cabin in Bull Gulch, located northeast of Dotsero, Hegeva methodically set about killing the wolf during the winter of 1921. A letter of thanks from the stockmen that March sounds like it might have been written by the government agency itself.”It is a big relief to us to know that ‘Old Lefty’ is a thing of the past – for his track on the range meant he was back and on the job of cattle killing once again,” wrote the stockmen. “We breathe a sigh of keen satisfaction, and fully realize the capture of ‘Old Lefty’ was truly a job for our Government men who study out these things and apply methods no ordinary amateur can touch. “You are doing a great work for us stockmen let us know when we can be of any assistance in furthering your operations on predatory animal control.”Legends lingerThe threat of wolf predation to the livestock herds was real enough. Wolves will eat everything from mice to moose. Absent deer and elk, of course, wolves would have attacked sheep and cattle. Yet newspapers of the time contained few stories of wolves eating Herefords and Merinos.An educated guess is wolves in early Colorado snacked on beef and lamb, but the threat was inflated. That’s also the argument found in a new book, “Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation,” edited by L. David Mech and Luigi Boiani. “During 1890-1930, the perception of the wolf by the U.S. public and Congress was strongly influenced by accounts of outlaw wolves that allegedly killed stock in large numbers,” say the authors, Steven H. Fitts, et al. “Many of these accounts were embellished and were developed, at least in part, by members of the U.S. Biological Survey to generate and maintain funding for their programs.”Seen in this way, even names such as “Lefty” and “Old Three Toes” were part of the public-relations spin. Would Lefty have seemed half as cunning had he instead been Alpha 3218? With a personalized enemy, the agency had both greater power and prestige.The campaign also played off human fears.In Russia, Sweden and other countries, a similar story was told of newlyweds and companions traveling in a sleigh when attacked by a pack of wolves. The sleigh’s occupants fight the wolves, but several are lost until finally, only the young couple remain, at which time the young man contemplates making a run for help … How different is the story from that of the urban “hookman” legend ? If a baby boomer, surely you were told the story when growing up of a young couple parked on a dark night on a lonely lane, when of a sudden there’s a scrape, scrape, scrape. At length, the guy gets out to investigate, and …1,128 wolvesFew wolves remained in the continental United States by the mid-20th century, mostly in a corner of Minnesota. However, some people even then were calling for restoration of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. As well, wildlife biologists had begun studying wolves in Alaska, trying to de-mythologize the species. But the most crucial change was the Endangered Species Act of 1973.That law charted new attitudes toward species protection, but not overnight. In 1983, the Colorado Wildlife Commission opposed reintroduction of both wolves and grizzly bears.Just the same, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1994 completed a study that found habitat suitable for 1,128 wolves in Colorado, with the best habitat being in the San Juans, the West Elks and the Flat Tops, the last of which spread into Eagle County. Moreover, two public opinion surveys revealed strong support across Colorado for restoration, with support somewhat stronger in cities, and slightly less on the Western Slope.Vail, Colorado