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By Merry Helm
Rueben Humes was a young Dickinson sheepherder. One day in 1900, Rueben went hunting for prairie chickens near the Heart River. His shotgun kept misfiring, but he finally shot a chicken, which dropped onto the opposite riverbank. As he forded the river to get it, he saw something.
“It looked like a big black sheep,” he said. “It was gray and had a huge mane of hair. I was so surprised I just stopped and looked … it was the largest wolf I had ever seen.” Rueben fired, but his gun misfired, and the wolf took off. Back at camp, the men told Rueben he had seen a buffalo wolf, which is a sub-species of the gray wolf.
Lewis and Clark discovered the buffalo wolf, canis lupus nubilus, in 1804. Lewis wrote, “We scarely see a gang of buffaloe without observing a psrsel of those faithfull shepherds on their skirts in readiness to take care of the maimed wounded. The large wolf never barks, but howls as those of the atlantic states do.”
At first, the Corps of Discovery had lumped the wild canines into two groups: coyotes were referred to as “prairie wolves,” and gray wolves were called “large wolves.” When they discovered the buffalo wolf subspecies, Lewis made detailed observations of how a pack would isolate an antelope from the herd so they could chase it down. He wrote they “… are very numerous, they are of a light colr. & has long hair with Coarse fur.”
During the journey, brothers Rueben and Joseph Field caught a wolf pup, which they wanted to turn into a pet. They tied it up, but it quickly gnawed its way free and ran back into the wild.
In fall 1843, artist John James Audubon painted both coyotes and wolves while near Fort Union. Referring to the coyote, he wrote, “The Prairie Wolf hunts in packs, but is also often seen prowling singly over the plains in search of food. During one of our morning rambles near Fort Union, we happened to start one of these wolves suddenly. It made off at a very swift pace and we fired at it without any effect, our guns being loaded with small shot at the time; after running about one hundred yards it suddenly stopped and shook itself violently, by which we perceived that it had been touched; in a few moments it again started and soon disappeared beyond a high range of hills, galloping along like a hare or an antelope.”
He also wrote about the White American Wolf, or canis lupus. “The White Wolf is far the most common variety of the Wolf tribe to be met with around Fort Union, on the prairies, and on the plains bordering the Yellow Stone river. When we first reached Fort Union we found Wolves in great abundance, of several different colours, white, grey, and brindled.”
Audubon also wrote, “The common wolf is not unfrequently met with in company with the Prairie wolf. On the afternoon of the 13th of July, as Mr. Bell and ourselves were returning to Fort Union, we counted eighteen wolves in one gang, which and been satiating themselves on the carcass of a Buffalo on the river’s bank, and were returning to the hills to spend the night. Some of them had their stomachs distended with food and appeared rather lazy.”
By 1926, buffalo wolves were extinct, as were all wolf species within the state. Recent studies, however, indicate there may still be buffalo wolves in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Wolves may also be re-colonizing some of their former habitat here in North Dakota.