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NC: Wolves have special place in regional lore

Written by George Ellison

I’ve never seen a timber wolf, even though they no doubt once roamed — from time to time — across the little valley west of Bryson City where I reside.

Elk have been reintroduced in the Smokies. Based upon the numerous reported sightings, it’s likely that a few cougars still reside in the Blue Ridge. One can easily imagine a scenario whereby wood bison might be reintroduced in Cades Cove. But I really can’t contemplate any scenario whereby timber wolves might be reintroduced.

Can you imagine the uproar in the region’s newspapers if, say, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked for public input regarding a possible timber wolf release at, say, Wayah Bald in the Nantahalas? That’s not going to happen, but we can still remember the timber wolf and the not so long ago time when it was the most formidable creature one could encounter in these hills.

Timber wolves formerly ranged over most of North America but no longer exist in the eastern United States. The most formidable of all the wild dogs of the world, the timber wolf can measure over 6-feet in length, stand nearly a yard at the shoulder, and weigh as much as 175-pounds.

In Cherokee lore he was the revered “Wa-ya,” the companion of Kana’-ti, their master hunter, and they would not normally kill a wolf. Certain hired killers who followed elaborate rituals for atonement could slay wolves that raided stock or fish traps.

The demise of the wolf began with the arrival of the colonial settlers, who brought an inbred fear and hatred of the “blood-thirsty varmint” from Europe and could not tolerate raids upon livestock. The first wolf bounty was set in eastern North Carolina in 1748 at 10 shillings for each wolf scalp. Bounty hunters pursued their quarry with guns, dogs and wolf pits. After the Revolution, the bounty in North Carolina climbed to $5 per scalp.

This intense pressure helped drive most of the remaining population into the mountains by the early 1800s, where skillful hunters familiar with the upcountry were required. The brothers Gideon and Nathan Lewis of Ashe County were the first of the renowned wolf hunters in WNC. They knew a good thing when they saw one. Locating a wolf den, one of the brothers would crawl in and secure the wolf pups as bounty, but somehow the female would always “escape.”

When asked why they never managed to kill a mature female, Gideon would reply matter-of-factly, “Would you expect a man to kill his milch-cow?”

The period of the Civil War marked a resurgence of wolves as many excellent marksmen were pulled out of the mountains or otherwise occupied by the conflict so that the multiplying wolves became increasingly brazen. But by the 1880s, they had become a scarce commodity in WNC. According to Mammals in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1985) the last gray wolf was killed in Haywood County in 1887.

That, however, seems unlikely as reports lingered on into the 20th century, and The Bryson City Times was referring to wolves being “up around Clingman’s Dome” on into the early 1890s.