Publish date:

A mountain with a wolf on it stands a little taller

So believes Glynn Riley, who—in the shadow of Spindletop, among the oil and rice fields near Galveston Bay—protects and preserves the final redoubt of the red wolf

Dogs are believed to have originated from Old World wolves 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, so wolves are dogs off the reservation and dogs are reservation wolves. Dogs are good with children because wild wolves are good with their offspring. Dogs whimper and cringe when disciplined because of the innate pack discipline of wolves, although at other times dogs are stoical and cheerfully accept the ups and downs of life with a master just as wolves accept the fortunes of the pack they are a part of. Like dogs, wolves bark in alarm and rush at an intruder near the den, and mark their passage through life with semantic squirts of pee.

If we like the idea of having a few primeval wild "dogs" living off the reservation, northern gray wolves would require only a nod from the voters to get a foothold in parts of their old range—in Maine and Wisconsin, for instance. Brought in, they would soon be at home, parceling up the timberland, one wolf to each three hundred or so deer. In Quebec and Minnesota they are thriving, and if ever the novel idea that the survival of wolves is important takes hold, the enormous inertia of tradition that so far has worked to all but wipe them out will operate to save them.

But the plight of the southern red wolf cannot be alleviated so easily. The red wolf evidently isn't just a subspecies of the gray, and "endangered" means something different when applied to it. A form of life a million years in the making is on the verge of disappearing—so far gone now that any effort to protect it must involve not only shielding it from man but also from encroachment and hybridization by coyotes. Red wolves, which are big-eared and short-coated, slender, spindly, stilt-legged for coursing through the Southern marshes or under tall forests, have always impressed observers as being rather rudimentary and unemphatic for wolves, fragile in their social linkups, not very clever, easy to trap. (Their name "red" does add a cachet and, now that they are regarded as the most endangered mammal on the continent, conceals their ineptitude from everybody but their friends.) Behaviorally they resemble gray wolves; ecologically they are more like coyotes. They howl like wolves and snarl when threatened, instead of silently gaping the mouth as coyotes do. They scout in little packs, unlike coyotes, which generally have stripped away the pack instinct for better secrecy in crowded country and better efficiency at hunting small game. A grown male weighs perhaps 60 pounds, between a coyote's 30 or 35 and a gray wolf's 80 pounds. But skinny and streamlined as he is, the red wolf can live on a coyote's diet of rabbits and cotton rats, and where a gray wolf would need about 10 square miles of temperate territory to feed himself—coyotes can get along, distributed as densely as one every square mile—a red wolf again is in between, needing five square miles to find his food and 10 to 40 to stretch his legs with other members of the pack.

By the late 1920s the red wolves, which once had ranged from Florida to central Texas and north to the Ohio River, were gone everywhere east of the Mississippi and no other predator had replaced them, but west of the Mississippi coyotes from the Great Plains slid right in after the shattered wolf packs stopped defending an area. The coyotes could withstand the settlers' trapping and poisoning campaigns a good deal better, and the logging-blitzing of the old forests actually benefited them. In the Ozarks and the bottomlands of the Mississippi River red wolves met their end in good order as a species, not mating with coyotes as they were superseded; but on the Edwards Plateau in southwest Texas, where the same blitz of pioneering settlers from the East was followed by an invasion of coyotes from other directions, for some reason the demoralized wolves accepted the coyotes as sexual partners and created with them a hybrid swarm. This swarm moved eastward slowly, irresistibly, absorbing the few remaining wolves of Texas' Hill Country. They bred with true wolves, coyotes and also with wild-running domestic dogs—anything they met and couldn't kill—becoming ever more adaptable, a swarm of skilled survivors in a kind of canine Injun territory situation.

A tiny, ragtag remnant of the red wolf population survived in coastal Texas and Louisiana between the Brazos River and the Atchafalaya; however, biologists did not discover it until 1962. Not until 1968 was any organized recovery effort initiated and not till 1973 was enough funding ($40,000) provided to really begin.

It seemed unbelievable that these last uncompromised packs should have been found in the Gulf Coast prairies and salt marshes instead of to the north in the piney woods and hillbilly thickets always listed as their home. Could they be living in the vicinity of Houston, Galveston and Beaumont, an old, industrial, heavily settled section of Texas? Houston is Texas' biggest city; Metro Houston grew by 600,000 people during the 1960s to a total of two million. Yet the wolves had ranged within Harris County itself, and beside Galveston Bay and, over in Jefferson County, through fertile rice fields, next to some of the state's earliest oil strikes, such as Spindletop. They numbered only a few hundred and were often poor specimens because the marshes, though rice-rich and oil-rich, are muggy and mosquito-ridden to the point where a calf may smother from the balls of insects that fasten inside its nose. In Chambers County alone there are 10 cattle ranches of more than 10,000 acres, but the only cattle that can survive the bugs during the summer and the windy winters, standing for months untended in the chilly water and the storms, are an indigenous mongrel Brahman breed. Parasites such as heartworms, hookworms, tapeworms, spiny-headed worms infect the wolves and mange plagues them; the sawgrass rips their fur until their tails are naked as a rat's; the spring floods drown their pups.

Texas has considerably less state-owned park and recreation lands than New Jersey and, for its size, remarkably little federal acreage, too, because one of the terms of its annexation to the United States was that the Federal Government acquire no public domain. This means that the fate of the wolves—finally protected by statute for the first time in 1973—is tied up with the rate at which inheritances are taxed and the local tax rate on land. If a handful of ranching oligarchies along the coast fare badly, if their oil runs out or the assessors decide to put the squeeze on them in favor of new industry or summer development, or if a younger generation coming into possession of the key spreads of property wants to be rich in money instead of open spaces and maybe live elsewhere, it will spell the end of the red wolves.

Part of a wolf-seeker's regimen is to visit mansion houses, therefore, and everywhere one encounters gracious living in the form of magnolias and spacious acreage patrolled by black cowhands. Peacocks, guinea hens and fancy geese stroll the grounds, 10-foot alligators lie in private pools, and there are big-kneed cypresses, pet deer in live-oak groves, oaks festooned with Spanish moss. Quail and mourning doves, mimosas, pecans, water oaks, four cars in the garage, cool patios with iron grillwork, long lawns, little lakes, and girls and their daddies (girls so pretty Daddy doesn't quite know what to do with them). Texas is a good place to be rich in, and these men give one to understand, with conscious irony, that they were conservationists because they were conservatives and it would only be when new views took command that the ecology of their grasslands would be disrupted—smiling, because of course a visiting Northern journalist was likely to represent those new views.

Glynn Riley, the federal red-wolf biologist, lives in the small town of Liberty and grew up in Wortham in the East Texas brush not very far away. His father did a bit of trading in scrub horses and cows, and even when there wasn't any money in the house it was a good life for a boy. He's 38, and has that cowpoke look of not putting much weight on the ground when he walks. His face is trim and small, his body slim, his hair curly and neat and his voice mild, so that just as, like many wildlife men, he prefers being inconspicuous, nature has given him the wherewithal. He has yet to finish college, having dropped out several times, and is a country-religious man. Although he is subject to more than his share of professional frustrations, if he is speaking bitterly and doing a slow burn, suddenly in mid-sentence he will undergo a change and say of the other individual in an altered tone, "But bless his heart." In the same folksy way, he says, "The good Lord gave the wolf 42 teeth to eat with." He broadcasts wolf howls from his tape recorder on the telephone to interested callers: "Sounds like a pack of Indians." He says a mountain with a wolf on it stands a little taller, and that a wolf represents everything a man wants to be: "He's free, he's a traveler, he's always on the move, he kills his food. He's worth 300 deer."

Riley has none of the pained air of a late-bloomer; instead he is simply different in this age of Ph.D.s, and suggests that his own head someday ought to be nailed to a museum wall alongside the red wolf's. He is a consummate trapper, has killed "a jillion" coyotes for the government, and thus is as skillful at politicking with the old ranchers and trappers as any government agent could be. Although his supervisors include some of the same men responsible for decimating the wolves of Texas in the first place, he gets along with them as other conservationists and biologists have not been able to—in the short, meager life of the program there have been transfers and a great deal of criticism. Indeed, not being a cosmopolitan man, his worst difficulty has probably been in dealing with what should be his natural constituency, the conservationists "up East," that formidable big-city crew of letter writers whom other scientists have rallied effectively to the cause of the gray wolf, polar bear and Indian tiger.

Riley is in the position of knowing more about red wolves than anybody else, yet watching a succession of schooled young men arrive to make their academic names studying the animal before it vanishes. They must turn to him for help, as all the cameramen and journalists who show up in Liberty do, and he has evolved a quietly noncompetitive view, putting the fun of his work above the rivalries of a career. His own trap-line is a private place: he traps a few wolves in order to attach radio-collars to them for tracing their life histories, and traps calf-killing wolves when the ranchers complain, transferring the best of these to a zoo in Tacoma, Wash., where they are kept as breeders for possible restocking in the future. Mostly he traps coyotes, though, especially for prophylactic purposes along the edge of the Big Thicket where the small tracks of the hybrid swarm already have met and mingled with the bigger tracks of the wolves in this final redoubt.

He took me walking with him in the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge next to Oyster Bayou. We saw snow geese, wheeling in platters by the thousands, which answered us at dawn when we sounded a siren to try to get the wolves to howl. We saw coots in the ditches and an alligator so big it looked like two, half in, half out of the water, and pelicans flying, and wavy lines of white ibis and cormorants, and roseate spoonbills like-scoops of strawberry ice cream high in the air. There were abundant tracks of otter, mink, raccoon, possum, armadillo. Otters lope in a way that even in the form of prints communicates their speedy eagerness.

Riley himself walked rapidly, hunkering down to feel the marks left by a wolf's toes. He bent right to the ground to smell its scenting-station—a wolf's squirt smells milder, not as musky as a coyote's—to distinguish how much time had passed. The far-flung splatters of tracks were a layout to him. He loves toes, hopping with his hands, his fingers in the toes, and never now encounters a coyote or a wolf that he can't trap if he chooses to. Usually he chooses not to, unless he wants to move them around, but in any part of Texas he can envision the land much as the coyotes do, knowing almost immediately where to find their prints and how to catch those toes. He is like a managerial cowboy, with wolves and coyotes for his cows.

His traps have toothless offset jaws and a long swiveled drag to minimize the damage done. He attaches a bit of cloth steeped in tranquilizer for the wolf to mouth so that it will relax. Sometimes, too, he removes a spring to weaken the bite and adjusts the pan until the jaws close at a touch so that not the slender leg but the resilient paw is pinched. He boils the traps in a black dye, then coats them with beeswax, and has a shed full of dark bottles of wolf, coyote, bobcat and ocelot urine, with bits of anal gland chopped in, or powdered beaver castor or beaver oil, two universal lures. Wolves scratch at a scent post after wetting it, whereas the cat family will scratch first, and neither is much interested in the other haunts, but to trap either beast he will use the smells of an interloper—wolves love to cross into the territory of another pack and leave their mark to razz the residents, like kids painting their colors on the walls of a rival school.

Riley carries hurt wolves to a veterinarian friend, Dr. Aaron Long, in the town of Winnie. Long pins together any broken bones (wolves will tear off a splint) and administers penicillin and distemper shots and worms them. He is a man who "likes old things," and is the angel of the program, having put thousands of dollars of his own modest funds into the work. He has a scrunched-together, matter-of-fact face, the mouth creased for smiling, and propagandizes for Riley as he makes his rounds among the cattlemen. The only other strong ally of Riley's I was able to find in Texas, in much meandering, was Hank Robison, who sells ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters in Houston. As a crusader and lobbyist, he has worked to get the state wildlife bounties removed. Otherwise the leading naturalists of Houston seem to have been remarkably indifferent, if not actually hostile. The city zoo has not even bothered to exhibit a red wolf, for example. (The zoo director says he could build good quarters for only $7,000 but that the local millionaires would find the project "controversial.") The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department over the years has taken what might politely be called a minimum of interest. The best blood enzyme studies of the wolves have been done, not at a Texas medical center, but in Minneapolis. Even the Office of Endangered Species of the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. has been slow as a taffy pull about the problem.

Like old-time trapping, Riley's is a lonely business. His best friend lives 600 miles to the west, a legendary tracker working anonymously in equally benign fashion with Texas' handful of mountain lions. When the two of them do manage to get together they can hardly contain their pleasure. They open those pungent brown bottles, bobbing their heads above them like wine experts, breathing the different bouquets, years in the brewing, and amble into the skull shed for some taxonomy. Wolves have more forehead in their skulls than coyotes, but dogs, which are dish-faced, have more forehead than wolves. Wolves have bigger teeth and a proportionately longer, narrower braincase than coyotes or dogs, and the sagittal crest along the ridge of the skull where their powerful jaw muscles attach is more pronounced.

Here in coastal Texas the pioneers found an old-growth forest of big sweet gums, elms, loblolly pines, hackberry trees and beech and oak. Wild violets and blackberries grew where the trees gave out, and then a prairie extended toward the sea, consisting of bluestem bunchgrasses, Indiangrass, gamagrass and switchgrass, with tall bluebells and milkweed stretching blue and white during the spring, and buttercups and Indian pinks under these, but broken by occasional sand knolls covered with yaupon and myrtle brush, where the wolves denned and hid out. Then came a marsh of spunkweed, cattails, cut-grass and the same spartina that the first colonists on the Atlantic fed their livestock. A bayshore ridge fronted the Gulf, beyond which the wolves, white pioneers and Indians crabbed and beach-combed, collecting stunned redfish and oysters after a storm. In the bayous mullet seethed, with gar and bullheads; a wagonload of geese could be shot almost any winter night along the tidal ponds. The wolves fed on deer and on sick ducks and geese—waterfowl from everywhere north to above Hudson's Bay.

They still do eat birds, mainly cripples from the hunting season. Instead of deer, they chew on stillborn calves and the huge bloated carcasses of steers that die of anaplasmosis or from the winters. The ranchers have built many windmill-driven wells that bring fresh water to the wolves and other wildlife as well as to the cattle, and the U.S. Soil Conservation Service has built raised cow walks and the oil companies, oystershell-based roads running upon embankments that provide the wolves with direct access nearly everywhere. Where the sand knolls have been bulldozed away, windbreaks of salt cedar, pine and Cherokee rose have been planted, fine for denning; better still are the countless miles of canal banks channeling water to the rice farmers. Rice farming has brought in a horn of plenty—as Riley calls it—of rodents. The fields stand fallow every second and third year, and when they are plowed or reflooded, the rice and barn and cotton rats and gobbly mice and big and baby rabbits must scrabble out across the levees to another field in a frantic exodus. However, the real staple of the wolves lately is an exotic creature, the nutria, which is a furry South American water rodent weighing 15 or 20 pounds, five times as large as a muskrat, and locally more catholic in its habitat and diet. Nutria were introduced from Argentina to Avery Island, Louisiana by a naturalist in the 1930s but escaped during a hurricane and wandered clear to the Rio Grande and now are shot as pests because they burrow through the levees, breed prodigiously and eat a lot of rice. They have fingery tracks—delicate fingers that can pick up a single grain of rice—but are so clumsy when abroad that they have been a blessing to the beleaguered alligator as well as the red wolf.

Despite the abundance of food, there are less than 200 pure wolves left—hybrids and coyotes already having seized all but three of these last seven Texas counties under study. One solution might be to give the wolves a Texas island such as Matagorda (already teeming with coyotes); or perhaps there isn't any hope. It may not matter much, if we bear in mind the continent-wide success of coyotes in resettling wild areas—the red wolves have been grist for the mill, making the coyotes bigger and "redder." But Riley has faith that here in Jefferson and Chambers counties his lone trapline can stem the tide, that rabies or a poisoner won't wipe them out in the meantime. When he worked farther west in Lubbock, doing rabbit counts and killing coyotes, he used to watch the badgers and the coyotes turn over cow chips in a partnership to catch the beetles underneath; once he saw a coyote take a jackrabbit away from an eagle, its chest fur shining nobly in the sun. He used to drive a hundred miles or so to chat with an old wolfer who had shot the last gray western lobos at their watering holes. "We thought there'd always be another wolf. We didn't know they would ever play out," the man said.

Red wolves have a higher, less emotive howl than gray wolves and don't blend with each other quite as stylishly but do employ more nuances and personalities than a gabbling family of coyotes. A coyote's howl sounds hysterical, amateurish by comparison, or like "a prolonged howl that the animal lets out and then runs after and bites into small pieces." Riley goes about, looking at the feet of wolf-chewed calves to see if they had ever walked or were born dead. Everywhere he stops his truck to look at tracks—at the short feet of feral dogs, dumped sick originally from hurrying cars along the interstate; at the wide feet of "duck dogs," lost during hunting season; and at the big heelpad and long foot of a true wolf. For the record, too, he collects skulls and skins "off the fence," wherever ranchers still poison them.

I found two likely-looking wolves dead on the highway as I was leaving Texas, and once, alone one night along Elm Bayou, I howled up a wolf a quarter of a mile away that sounded querulous, quirky, unpresumptuous, yowly, variable and female. We were beginning to converse, but I left it to answer another wolf howling in the distance. This second individual and T talked back and forth until I started to wonder; the sound jerked and creaked, awfully low in pitch, almost like a windmill. Indeed, that's what it was—I'd left a real wolf for a windmill!

One morning soon afterward I was visiting with a rancher who said he wanted to kill all the turkey buzzards in the sky as well as the red wolves. There are plenty of buzzards; we could see about 15 roosting on poles and trees. Just over-" night the rain ditches had filled, but suddenly the sun broke through the clouds, lying at a cannon's angle, the kind of sun that made you answer to it, changing, irradiating dead as well as living things. Greens bled into blues and reds, white was black and black was white. Then, in this incredible intensity of light, what the buzzards did, following some lead from an elder, was all at once to spread their wings, holding them outstretched stock-still to dry. What we were witnessing was not unfamiliar; everybody has seen pictures of a totem pole topped by a raven carved with its wings outspread—the Earth's Creator, according to the maker of the totem pole. Ravens are the buzzards of the North. What we were privy to—15 blizzards spread-eagled, metal-colored, in a violent sun—would have transfixed an Indian of the Northwest, would have provided a whole life's ozone to a woodcarver, a vision any warrior would have died for, if in fact his excitement didn't render him invincible. Fifteen images of the Creator in a rising sun would have propelled a great chief into his manhood, after walking naked for a month. An end or a beginning, certainly, except that there are no divine signs now.



Riley with a tranquilized red wolf, one of only 200 or so that remain in a few coastal counties of Texas.