By I.C. Murrell
As storm clouds loomed over the coastal marsh and low, rumbling thunder echoed in the distance, I quickened my pace.
Having placed a motion-sensing camera near a small, brackish marsh, there were still several hundred yards left to change film and perhaps validate sighting reports for the area.
After rounding a corner of the trail, I stopped for a second to adjust the hood of my jacket when I saw it.
Lying in the broad open was a large wolf or at least a very large wolf-like animal.
Its coat was deep red, and the head showed a prominent sagital crest, broad snout, highlighted by large ears. Its tail was long but not too bushy and it had a white tip that matched the lining on the front of its legs.
Fewer than 40 yards separate us yet I wanted to move in closer. Slowly walking toward the animal without looking directly in its eyes, I closed the distance another 10 yards before it showed any signs of distress. Then it suddenly jumped to its feet and retreated with a gait very wolf-like.
Validation would not come from the lens of the camera but with my own two eyes in what was the most unique wildlife encounter of my life. A reader of my column tipped me off to the wolves in this area and following up had paid off in a magnificent way but this encounter would not be the end of the story. Not even close.
I say “wolf-like” because the red wolf which is the species native to Southeast Texas is supposed to be extinct in the wild other than a handful that were released on the East Coast.
They were part of a captive breeding program started with 14 animals that were captured in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana and were said to be the last “pure” red wolves.
The common thinking was the population threatened itself by interbreeding with the coyote and creating a genetic mutt of sorts.
Around the same time, I had my encounter a landowner from Jefferson County called late one Friday evening and said he had been feeding coyotes on his property in hopes of killing them before he built a facility there.
He feared the coyotes would cause problems around the tenant’s dogs and cats so he planned to eliminate them. The evening before he called me, he sat out with his rifle and watched what he called a wolf come up to the dog food he had put out to lure coyotes.
“I looked through my scope and immediately noticed it wasn’t just a regular coyote,” he said.
I rushed over to the spot, set out my (now very primitive) motion sensing video camera and that evening captured nearly 30 minutes of video of wolf-like animal eating the dog food.
The video is so long because the wolf can hear the camera running but cannot quite place the sound so it takes a bite, runs off, looks around and takes another bite.
The video is quite humorous to watch but does give insight into the behavior of these animals and reinforces that an animal that may or may not be a “pure” red wolf but is definitely not just a coyote.
Looking back to my close encounter in hindsight it reminds me of the importance of wildness and that we humans don’t always have all of the answers.
After the beautiful animal ran off, I walked up a hill toward one of my motion-sensing cameras and heard footsteps in the dry leaves behind me. When I turned around, I noticed the wolf I had just seen was following me. At a distance of only 10 yards, it showed no aggressive posturing but a general curiosity as to what I was doing in its habitat and perhaps more importantly how long I was going to stay.
As I locked eyes with it, I saw an untamed, majestic wildness that reminded me why I got into the wildlife study to begin with. Then almost instantly, its eyes changed and a look of deep fear overcame it. It stared for a second, put down its ears and ran off into the brush.
I have pondered many times what that animal was thinking as we stared at one another and then another thought crossed my mind.
If a simple stare caused this proud creature to retreat into the brush, what could a growing human population starving for land to develop do to them?
There is enough brush for them to retreat to now but will there be in the no so distant future?
Only time will tell.