Of wolves and men

Of Wolves and People

Wolves are a symbol of all things wild. Stan Tekiela, author of Wolves, Coyotes & Foxes: Symbols of the Wild, tells us about the changing relationships between wolves and humans.

Few animals in the wilderness elicit such strong emotions in people as the wolf. Wolves are loved by many who cherish wild places and intact ecosystems, but they are loathed by others who regard them as competition for natural resources. Stan regards wolves as the epitome of wildness! 

Of wolves and men

Ancient Times
Early humans and wolves no doubt shared similar regions worldwide and competed for food. Both were top predators, living and hunting in family units and traveling to hunt for food. They both stayed in groups year-round and were fairly long-lived. Both used complex communication and taught survival skills to their young. Their coexistence must have led to many encounters, and humans must have noticed the similarities. This is, in all likelihood, how the relationship between wolves and people began. 

The Wolf Spirit
Some long-ago cultures around the world believed that wolves were their brothers. The early American Indians and other Indigenous peoples also had a kinship with wolves and their ways. While many tribes feared wolves, others respected wolves for their power and even more for their intelligence. Both American Indians and First Nations people killed wolves only out of the need for fur for clothing and teeth and claws for trade, and they often made apologies to the sacred wolf. For them, the wolf didn’t represent something to fear or obliterate. They didn’t speak harshly about wolves or brag about killing them. To do that, it was thought, would offend the wolves and bring bad luck and hard times.

Of wolves and men

Indigenous peoples of the American West and Great Plains saw the wolf as master of the hunting craft. They wore wolf skins when scouting for prey, believing it would help them hunt like the great wolf. They also believed that wolves understood their language and would even warn them about enemies nearby. Obviously, the spiritual relationship between people and wolves was close—and in some circles, still is today. Even now, the wolf continues to be regarded by some as a brother, teacher, and spirit guide. 

Wolves and the Colonists 
Based on Old World mythology, the European colonists brought to the New World a fear and hatred of wolves. Settlers depended on domestic livestock, unlike the Indigenous peoples, who were reliant on wild game. Wolves were seen as wanton killers and competitors for food. Livestock was easy prey for wolves and needed to be protected. 

Of wolves and men

Eradication programs started right away. During settlement times, the rate at which wolves were killed reached a fevered pitch and thus began the longest, most sustained, and relentless persecution of a species. Other animals, such as coyotes and cougars, were also targeted. In addition to the outright killing of wolves, populations of deer, elk, moose, and bison were decimated by hunters for the colonial marketplace. As large prey in the wild became scarce, the remaining wolves were forced to switch their diet to livestock. This brought wolves into more conflict with people. 

Wolves in the Twentieth Century 
By 1905, the United States Congress established the Bureau of Biological Survey to eliminate all wolves and other large predators from all lands in order to protect livestock. At that time and in the decades to follow, the wolf was denigrated, and stories circulated that rogue wolves were roaming around, killing livestock just for the sake of killing. The bureau generated many of these reports in an effort to maintain funding. In 1924, federal biologist Edward A. Goldman declared, “Large predatory mammals, destructive to livestock and game, no longer have a place in our advancing civilization.” 

Of wolves and men

A Change of Heart Makes Conservation Efforts Start
It wasn’t until the 1940s, when the wolf was eliminated from nearly all regions, that people started to speak out in favor of the wolf. Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), a conservationist considered the father of wildlife management, was one of the first to come to the defense of wolves. He himself had hunted wolves when he was young, but he wrote about his heartrending experience of watching an old wolf’s “fierce green fire dying in her eyes” as a result of his gunshot, and it helped to change his ways. In 1944, Leopold proposed restoring wolves to Yellowstone National Park, where they had been completely eradicated for nearly two decades. Sadly, about 50 more years would pass before that restoration would even begin. 

Other conservation efforts and knowledgeable biological decisions about wolves were initiated during the 1950–60s. With the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970s came the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and other major environmental laws. From these beginnings, many organizations formed to help protect and preserve wolves. 

Of wolves and men

What do you think about the conservation of wolves? Let us know. We would love to hear from you. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for our newsletter now! #bewellbeoutdoors

About the author: Naturalist, wildlife photographer, and writer Stan Tekiela is the author of more than 175 field guides, nature books, children’s books, wildlife audio CDs, puzzles, and playing cards, presenting many species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, trees, wildflowers, and cacti in the United States. 

With a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural History from the University of Minnesota and as an active professional naturalist for more than 25 years, Stan studies and photographs wildlife throughout the United States and Canada. He has received various national and regional awards for his books and photographs. 

Also a well-known columnist and radio personality, Stan’s syndicated column appears in more than 25 newspapers, and his wildlife programs are broadcast on a number of Midwest radio stations. Stan can be followed on Facebook and Twitter. He can be contacted via www.naturesmart.com.

You can follow Stan on Facebook and Twitteror contact him via his web page. Stan’s nationally syndicated NatureSmart column appears in more than 25 cities spanning 5 states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania) and is circulated to more than 750,000 readers.

For more stories about wildlife and nature, sign up for our newsletter here! You can order Wolves, Coyotes & Foxes: Symbols of the Wild now. If you enjoyed this post, you might like more of Stan’s amazing nature books: Owls: The Majestic Hunters, Bears of North America: Black Bears, Brown Bears, and Polar Bears, and Bald Eagles: The Ultimate Raptors.


Liliane Opsomer
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