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NJ: The wolves have left the county — or have they?

SUSSEX COUNTY — One of the problems encountered by the early Sussex County residents was wild animals, especially wolves.

One local historian to write about this problem was the Rev. Alanson A. Haines, who compiled a history of local events in his book “Hardyston Memorial” in 1888.

Haines wrote, “The first white settlers were greatly troubled by beasts of prey. Panthers, bears, wildcats and wolves dwelt in the woods, and often prowled around the settlers’ homes, killing sheep and calves, and even threatening men. Hunters were compelled to keep their fires burning all night when they bivouacked on the mountains. Wolf scalps or heads were nailed on the outside of many a cabin, a pleasing exhibition of the hunter’s success in the chase after these ravagers.

“The destruction caused by a single wolf, or a pair of wolves, for they generally went in pairs, in one night among a flock of sheep would be fearful. The old wolves became exceedingly cunning to escape pursuit or to avoid the traps set for them, and the she wolves, when they had young, were the fiercest and most ravenous.”

Haines described the American gray wolf as “nearly four feet long, with a bushy tail of 18 or 20 inches. Some overgrown specimens might have been even larger. Although about the same height and length as the European wolf, the American was more muscular and had more powerful jaws. The general color was a grey, with some much lighter than others.”

Continuing to discuss the American wolf, Haines wrote, “Sometimes a great hunt would be organized for the destruction of a single wolf, which had broken into some sheep fold. The hunters surrounded a large district, or a mountain side, within which they supposed the wolf was lurking, and then came in closer and closer until it was found. Wolves are afraid of fire, and of the human eye, and seldom attack men. Large bounties were paid for killing wolves.”

As early as June 1682, a bounty of 15 shillings per head for wolves was offered by each county, and 15 shillings additional were paid by the town within whose limits the animals might be killed; excepting the towns in Somerset, where seven shillings were paid. In 1695, these bounties were repealed, and it was left to the discretion of each town to adopt such measures as might be necessary to exterminate the wolves.

“In July 1730, the bounty for a full grown wolf was 20 shillings; for a ‘whelp not able to prey’, it was five. But presumably these amounts were insufficient and in 1751, the bounties were increased to 60 shillings for wolves and 10 shillings for whelps.”

Benjamin Edsall, in his “Centennial Address” in 1853, wrote that “the taxes collected in the county during the years 1753-54 furnished the means of defraying expenses. The sum of 100 pounds were paid for wolf scalps, or nearly three times as much as it cost to erect the county jail at Johnsonburg.

What happened to the wolves in Sussex County? Fred Space, one of the county’s foremost experts on wildlife, says that the wolves were gone long before his time and presumably in the 1800s. Space’s understanding is that a wolf demands a lot of territory and they were shot off by the early settlers. Due to competition with the early settlers, the wolves were not able to survive here. The coyotes that migrated down from Canada have adapted, Space says. “The coyotes are able to survive in heavily populated areas. They are cunning and they reproduce in large numbers and have a 90 percent survival rate.

“But,” says Space, “in a sense, the wolf has not entirely disappeared, as the DNA of the Eastern coyote is 25 percent wolf and 75 percent coyote. The Eastern coyote,” says Space, “is sometimes alluded to as a ‘crowolf.’?” Space explains in support of this theory that the Eastern male coyote weighs between 50 and 60 pounds, while a Western male coyote weighs between 30 and 35 pounds.

As noted by Haines, many times a hunt would be held to capture a wolf that had caused considerable damage. Two versions of the wolf hunt, described as one of the last to be held in Sussex County, have survived in written format. And although they vary slightly, they do provide an idea of how the wolf hunts took place so many years ago. The hero, in both accounts places “Buckey” (Thomas) DeKay as the main character, with the estimated guess of taking place in the early winter of 1807, with David Strait credited as the narrator.

Here’s one version of the story. “An old she wolf for some years had committed many depredations, killing the farmers’ sheep and even young cattle in many sections, and had become so wary as to avoid all traps that had been set for its capture. These depredations had become more and more frequent, first in the Sparta mountain, next night in the Hamburgh or Wawayanda mountains.

“The wolf had killed a number of sheep for William Headley, a brother-in-law of David Strait, at Milton. As there was a good tracking snow, Strait and Headley and several other of the neighbors organized that morning with a determination that now that old wolf must die for the many misdeeds she had done.

“She had been tracked through the mountain to Stockholm, and from thence to Canisteer, and by a long roundabout way to Vernon, where that night it had killed some sheep at ‘Buckey’ DeKay’s. The party reached there soon after the wolf had committed the bloody act, in the early morning, having traveled day and night. When the extent of the old wolf’s work elsewhere was made known to Mr. DeKay he demanded a rest and provided a bountiful breakfast for the hunting party.

“In the meantime he organized a new party with hounds and muskets, who joined with the others, and followed in pursuit of the wolf. The wolf was overtaken about noon and shot at but managed to escape, and it was not until late in the afternoon that it was finally surrounded at Beaver Dam, between Snufftown and Franklin. The hounds there closed in upon her; but many of them were killed in short order. It was here that ‘Buckey’ DeKay rushed in upon the conflict between the hounds and wolf, and with one well-directed blow upon the head of the wolf, killed it with his musket, and the hounds were released from their great chase.

“A bounty of $100 had been offered for the wolf, dead or alive, so its carcass was taken to the tavern at Snufftown, ‘Buckey’ placed the wolf carcass in an upright position, put a pipe in his mouth, and then treated everybody to whiskey. A general time of rejoicing was held and the wolf was kept on exhibition all night and everyone went to see it.”

As for Space, when he hears the coyotes in his zoo howl and he hears the coyotes in the wild howl back at them, it serves as a reminder that the wolf still remains in the Sussex County area, but only in the DNA of the Eastern coyote.


Jennie Sweetman