Once bountiful, Miss. red wolves gone and almost forgotten
Fifty years ago wolf sightings were reported in Mississippi at least as frequently as panther sightings are today, especially by hunters in the Delta between the Mississippi and the levee.
Most, if not all, of those “wolves” seen by Mississippians were probably coyotes, which, though not very common in Mississippi until the 1970s or 80s, have been around the Magnolia State at least since the 1930s.
While coyote sightings are so common these days as to be unremarkable, reports of wolf sightings in Mississippi are almost unheard of, probably because observers today generally know the animals they are seeing are coyotes and they never imagine them to be wolves.
Wolves probably disappeared from Mississippi at least by the 1950s, if not earlier. The last confirmed wolf killing in Mississippi occurred in 1946 in Claiborne County. At one time, though, they were quite common.
Fewer sounds were more familiar to early American settlers than the wild, weird, nocturnes of wolves. Their haunting serenades must have been especially unnerving to the pioneers of the Deep South, where the moss-draped forests and dense canebrakes already were mysterious enough without the addition of the wolf's banshee-like baying.
Still, some found a strange, romantic comfort in the wild canine's nighttime singing. “The howling of the wolf,” wrote early Delta resident and later Mississippi governor Benjamin G. Humphreys (for whom Humphreys County was named) “was the lullaby of my infant slumbers.”
Biologists have longed believed the predominate Mississippi wolf species was the red wolf (Canis rufus ). Not nearly as well-known or widely distributed was the gray wolf (Canis lupus) of the west and north or the timber wolf ( Canis lupus lycaon) of the north and east.
The red wolf roamed America's woodlands from Texas to the Carolinas, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio River Valley. Despite his name, rufus historically came in a wide range of colors from buff to black and just about every shade in between, including the reddish phase from which the species took its name.
Typically weighing from 40 to 80 pounds, the red wolf averaged only about two thirds the size of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). But, like his larger cousin, the red had a longer, more "wolfish" muzzle than the comparatively snub nosed and much smaller coyote. The red, though, was less sociable than the larger gray canine, preferring small hunting groups to the large packs associated with Canis lupus. The red wolf, rarely tackled large prey, preferring to make his meals of rabbits and small rodents.
Mississippi writer J. F. H. Claiborne (1809-1884), though, once watched a pack of south Mississippi wolves bring down a full grown whitetail buck. Experts say the red wolf generally was a shy creature that avoided humans. Coahoma County, Mississippi’s, Robert Eager Bobo, 19th century bear hunter and acknowledged expert on the Delta wilderness of the post Civil War era, however, once told of a man he knew who was treed by a pack of wolves and broke his rifle trying to club them away (after using up his ammunition) before he was finally rescued by a group of hunters. Apparently no one bothered to tell those wolves that they were not a danger to humans!
While perhaps only rarely threatening people, red wolves did manage to kill a lot of livestock. Consequently, farmers and ranchers trapped, poisoned, or shot the animals at every opportunity. By the late 1800's that relentless killing, together with a dramatic increase in the destruction of southern woodlands, had greatly diminished the red wolf's original range, and the howl of the red wolf became, in most areas, little more than a shadowy memory.
Still, remnant populations lingered on in parts of the wolves’ former range, including Mississippi, and the big predators continued to be targeted by landowners. The red wolf faced a threat from canine quarters as well. As its habitat was shrinking, the smaller, more adaptable coyote actually was expanding its range, in many cases overlapping that of the red wolf. As early as 1920 the two species began crossbreeding, producing hybrid offspring, which furthered endangered the red wolf's chances for survival.
Killing both species continued to be considered a necessary means of conservation of game animals like deer and turkey. As late as 1938, Pearl River County, Mississippi, like many counties throughout the wolf's range, offered a $25 bounty for each wolf or coyote killed or captured. That same year an article in a Mississippi state publication announced an "eradication drive" aimed at "coyotes and timber wolves" in south Mississippi. By 1962 coyote-wolf hybrids had replaced red wolves throughout most of the latter's range, and only a few hundred supposedly genetically pure members of the Canis rufus breed survived. Those few hundred may not have been as genetically pure as once thought.
Recent studies indicating substantial coyote genes in the red wolf's make-up suggest what many biologists have long suspected may in fact be the case: that the historic red wolf was not an actual species so much as a population of coyote/gray wolf hybrids. Other studies suggest that there was at one time a separate red wolf species, but that it long ago picked up substantial coyote DNA from crosses with that animal.
Interestingly, the coyote population of the Southeastern states seems to have picked up some wolfish genes along the way – a black phase coyote, almost unheard of in the west, is not uncommon in the southeastern coyote population. The black genes quite likely came from coyote/wolf interbreeding. Whether they represented a true species or were coyote/wolf hybrids, a tiny remnant population of red wolves made a last stand in the swampy, Gulf Coast country on the border of Texas and Louisiana, a desolate domain of nutria, alligators, and armadillos.
This semi-tropical environment - plagued with heartworms, hookworms, and other canine parasites that shortened the lives of mature wolves and caused high mortality rates among their pups was - at best, marginal wolf habitat.
The future held little hope for the red wolf.
Then, in 1973, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (U. S. F. & W. S.) formed the Red Wolf Recovery Team with the goal of rehabilitating this remaining rufus population. The program, which, in the intervening years has re-introduced some pairs of red wolves into the wild, most notably at the Alligator River refuge in North Carolina, simply has not had the results hoped for. Moreover, local landowners, unhappy with wolves straying from the federal refuge onto private farmlands, have lobbied to have the program ended and the wolves removed from the wild.
Despite problems with the reintroduction program, red wolves continue to do well in zoos. A pair at the Jackson, Mississippi, zoo, produced a litter of eight pups in 2016. It is unlikely, though, that the red wolf will ever roam wild in the Mississippi woods again. At least for the foreseeable future, those of us who long to hear the eerie howl of the wolf drifting through the canebrake, as did Benjamin Humphrey in his childhood so long ago, must be content with the occasional yelping of coyotes.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.
Copyright 2018 James T. McCafferty