LANDER, Wyo. _ The wolf head on an old Indian sheepherder's wall tucks back its ears and bares its fangs at all who enter the dark den. The stitches bulging and popping under the jaw confess the bluff. This aging trophy with broken teeth is, evidently, the last of the Yellowstone wolves that ran among the elk and deer before extermination decades ago. They also ran among sheep from time to time, which is why Leo Cottenoir lowered his Winchester .270 over the sagebrush in May 1943 and scrambled the predator's lungs.
At the time he was protecting property and, he thought, himself. He remembered childhood stories about dangerous wolves, so he dropped the 90-pounder at 75 yards. But 52 years is a long time between wolves. He might retract that shot now if there were a way. “It's the first law of nature - I thought he was after me and I was going to get him first,'' said Cottenoir, now 85. “Afterwards I felt sorry, because I thought that it was the only one I'd ever see and I shot him."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted this specimen as the last wolf known to be shot in the Yellowstone region until a hunter killed one in the Teton Wilderness south of the park two years ago. Though the wolf is now protected in the region by the federal Endangered Species Act, the government did not prosecute in that case because the hunter said he mistook it for a coyote. Tests proved the Teton Wilderness wolf was related to the wolves now recolonizing northwestern Montana, but the agency said it probably was a loner just passing through rather than part of a new Yellowstone population.
Likewise, it is difficult to know whether Cottenoir's mount was a wanderer from the north or actually one of the last stragglers hanging on in the wilds of northwestern Wyoming. Cottenoir said he was just doing what he thought necessary, but he feels bad he shot the only wolf he ever saw, and possibly one of the last around America's first national park. With a successful government reintroduction of Canadian wolves, he hopes, it won't matter. “I'm quite a religious man," said Cottenoir, the great-great grandson of a French Canadian who helped build the first Catholic mission in southwestern Washington. "I think God made the wolf, and he's got just as much right to be here as any other God-given animal."
Even on the morning the Cowlitz Indian nervously pulled his trigger, the gray wolf was thought to be long gone from the region. Cottenoir, from the Mount St. Helens area of Washington, married into the Shoshone tribe in 1933 and moved to the Wind River Reservation. In his first 10 years there he never saw a wolf, and fellow ranchers told him they thought they and the government had finished their campaign before 1920. Many of the surviving ranchers and their heirs now worry about seeing that campaign undone; about having to deal with another menace to an already difficult business. Cottenoir understands those fears. After all, he kept 1,000 sheep on the range for 20 years. He still cusses his longtime adversary, the coyote. “I always had the gun with me."
But using the gun sparingly, as the federal wolf recovery plan allows, always seems to be enough, he said. Watching over livestock and killing those predators that cause problems is the best way to co-exist. The price is almost never more than a few animals, he said.
“It doesn't mean to let them overrun the country, but they can control them just like they do'' other predators, he said. “(Ranchers) live with eagles and coyotes and bobcats. They can put up with wolves just as well as they can those.''
Cottenoir, a hunter in his younger years, also dismisses fears that wolves will bite into big game populations. “When people first came to the North American continent, there was elk, deer, antelope, rabbits. Wolves didn't deplete the population then, so why should they now?
Man is the biggest damn predator around.''
Just after 5 a.m. on that morning in 1943, a sheepherder told Cottenoir he heard coyotes yipping near some newborn lambs at the southern base of the Owl Creek Mountains, on the north side of the reservation. Cottenoir rode his horse out to the area, where the lambs were protected by lanterns and flags to spook predators. From a distance, he saw what he thought to be an adult coyote and two pups in a drainage called Muddy Creek. When he approached, he realized the larger animal must have been a wolf, and the other two adult coyotes. His first two shots missed - he blames nerves - but he connected with a clean lung shot when the wolf turned and exposed his side profile. It took a long time to get the horse to accept this new smell and sit still for Cottenoir to drape the carcass across. When he returned with a wolf, everyone from the sheriff to the editor of the local Wyoming State Journal was shocked. The bounty on wolves had been removed, so the sheriff offered the $5 bounty for coyotes. Cottenoir, sensing even then that this was a special animal, declined and took it to a taxidermist. The price, $13.50, is still etched in pencil on the wooden backing.
Something happened to Cottenoir those decades ago when he first looked at this wolf, and then when he learned how rare it was. He became a self-described ``wolf enthusiast.'' Now, in his later years, he wants to take the short drive up the highway to Yellowstone and see if he might be able to spot another one alive.