Hunt for Lobo Part II

Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature
Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature

Untangling the Past

When Seton arrived in New Mexico in 1893, decades of hunting had decimated the previously abundant wildlife. Wolves had hunted animals from bison to pronghorn antelope. But by then predators preyed upon cattle, the only large animals remaining. Lobo and company prowled the ranch country along the Corrumpa watershed.

This intermittent creek (“Currumpaw” in Seton’s spelling), arises from the east slopes of two prominent peaks, Sierra Grande and Capulin Volcano. It runs north of  Clayton, New Mexico and on towards the Oklahoma border. The resident wolves declined by six due to Seton’s efforts, all taken in inhumane leg traps. Two of their skulls ended up in the Vertebrate Collection of the specimen storage facility at the Canadian Museum of Nature (Collections des Vertébrés, Musée canadien de la nature) in Ottawa.

I saw them in a high ceiling, dimly lit, quiet hall. Few visitors make it into this secure facility. And almost none visit the New Mexico wolves. I stopped by on my way to Baffin Island in 2009, assisting a plant ecology expedition.  Dr. Kamal Khidas, Chief Collections Manager, kindly brought out the two skulls, long ago informally named “Lobo” and “Blanca” by someone familiar with the story.

Laid out on a heavy wood table, they gleamed startling white against a black cloth background. They retained Seton’s original specimen tags on which was written a catalog number, date of kill, and other notes. I compared these tags to Seton’s original field notes. Sometimes Seton specified the manner of death, i.e., by gun or by strangulation. I show them below in numerical order.

#653 December 13, 1893, male, 100 lbs. (maybe shot in trap)

#655 December 25, 1893, male, 87 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature; pelt at Philmont or Canadian Museum of Nature)

#662 December 29, 1893, female, 75 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#672 January 25, 1894, female, 80 lbs. (shot in trap? strangled?) “Blanca”

#675 January 29, 1894, female, 60 lbs. (maybe shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#677 January 31, 1894, male, 78 lbs. (died of injuries after release from trap) “Lobo” (skull gifted to Caroline Fitz Randolph in 1894 or 1895, not located)

Meanwhile, in New Mexico

I assumed the correct tags were still connected to the current specimens. I’ll return to the Canadian skulls in a moment, but first to the collection of the National Scouting Museum—Seton Memorial Library at Philmont Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.

In 1965, Julia Seton, Ernest’s widow, promised a donation of Seton-related material to the Boy Scouts of America. This collection was eventually housed at Philmont. Included was a wolf pelt identified as “Lobo” when it was displayed in the Castle at Seton Village. But a few years ago, when Philmont museum staff opened the case, and invited me to take a look, we noticed two things. First, the tag on this pelt was for specimen # 655. Lobo’s number was #677. Second, the appearance in the famous photograph of the wolf identified by Seton as being Lobo, is not the same as the pelt in the Philmont collection.

That is, if the photograph taken by Seton really shows Lobo, then the Philmont pelt is that of a different wolf, maybe #655 as it is marked. Or, the photograph, identified by Seton as Lobo, is actually of a different wolf. But since Julie (and presumably Seton) passed off #655 as being #677…well, we can’t know anything for certain.

Back to the Canadian specimens

Seton specimen #662, Canadian Museum of Nature #3726

Written on tag #662:

Species: Texas Gray Wolf
Locality: New Mexico, Union County, Currumpaw River, about 35 mi. N.W.  of Clayton, N.M.
December 29, (1887: Crossed out) 1893
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Blanca. Canis lupus monstrabilis. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in Union Co. New Mexico on December 29, 1887”

(I didn’t get the information copied from this one, but the number 662 was attached. Skull showed no bullet hole. Blanca’s specimen number was #672, so presumably this one is not Blanca.)

Seton Specimen #665  Canadian Museum of Nature #1875

Written on tag #655:

Species: Canis lupus nubilus Say, Plains Gray Wolf

Locality: United States: New Mexico
Date: 1893  Sex: Female adult
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton
Second National Museum of Canada tag on #655:
Species: Texas Gray Wolf, Canis Lupus monstrabilis Goldman
Locality: U.S.A., Clayton County
Date: 1893?
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Lobo. Canis lupus nubilus. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in New Mexico in 1883.  Loaned by J.H. Fleming. From old mounted specimen dismounted in February 1942.)

(This skull has a bullet hole; there is a pelt associated with this number. The 1883 date above is a typo.)

But here we encounter a new problem. Both the Canadian Museum of Nature and the National Scouting Museum have pelt’s identified as #665! At least one, and perhaps both of these identifications are incorrect. Also, notice that the Canadian Museum of Nature’s “Lobo” and “Blanca” are identified as belonging to different sub-species.

DNA

In an email to me dated September 3, 2009, Dr. Khidas shared with me the “Genetic Analysis of Canadian Museum of Nature Samples.” This was conducted by Professor Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, dated October 8, 2007, on the two New Mexico wolf specimens.

For specimen #662 the researchers took their DNA sample from a tooth. For #665 they used foot skin from the pelt. Both specimens had the same “mitochondrial control region haplotype” or DNA sequence. This is “a unique sequence not previously detected in extant or historic Canis lupus. This “haplotype is in the same clade as historic Canis lupus nubilus haplotypes” observed also from Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, the “interior continental U.S. gray wolves.”

Neither of these specimens, if they are indeed from different animals, conform to the genetic profile of monstrabilis. The ranges of both intersected in northeast New Mexico.

Don’t confuse either of them with the Mexican Gray Wolf Canis lupus baileyi, the still extant subspecies living in southwest New Mexico.

We are unlikely to untangle all these mysteries, historical puzzles mainly of interest to a few experts. Further DNA analysis and a closer look at textual evidence could help.

Of greater concern is preserving the wolves still living. Or will Canis lupus baileyi follow nubilus and monstrabilis into the forever oblivion of extinction?

(An exhibition, Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, accompanied by a graphic novel of the same name, is currently showing at the Seton Gallery of the Academy for the Love of Learning.)

Lobo’s Story of wolf hunting in New Mexico

Detail of illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Jamison Chās Banks
Detail of illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Jamison Chās Banks

First introduced as a long form story in 1894, “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” became a star because of Seton’s 1898 book, Wild Animals I Have Known. Lobo’s story has resonated ever since, re-issued many times. It has also been re-imagined. British illustrator William Grill published his own graphic novel, The Wolves of Currumpaw in 2016.

A satirical version (which appeared to have been influenced by my book on Seton) appeared on an American television network a few years ago. Even earlier, BBC and PBS ran slightly different versions of a Lobo documentary. Occasionally I hear a rumor that another literary or cinematic version may be in the works.

This August, the Academy for the Love of Learning releases its own graphic novel of Lobo’s story. That is a lot of attention for a wolf who died over a century ago. Seton wrote:

“Lobo lived his wild romantic life from 1889 to 1894 in the Currumpaw region, as the ranchmen know too well, and died, precisely as related, on January 31, 1894. The fact that these stories are true is the reason why all are tragic. The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end.”

This December marks the 120th anniversary of Wild Animals I Have Known. Lobo’s story is the most popular in a collection that includes many fine works. Seton gives a first-person account of pursuing the brave and noble Lobo.

Spoiler alert: Synopsis of the story follows, including its ending.

The setting: northeastern New Mexico, October 1893 – February 1894 in the area now known as Union County. (It separated from Colfax County in January 1894.) Broad tablelands cut deep arroyos. Rising from the flanks of two volcanoes, Sierra Grande and Capulin (now a National Monument) the intermittent flow of Corrumpa Creek crosses eastward over dozens of semi-arid miles toward the town of Clayton. Seton hunted wolves here. Although somewhat embellished, Seton presents Lobo’s story much as is actually happened.

Part 1: A large gray wolf, leader of a five-wolf pack, preyed upon Currumpaw Valley cattle in the late 19th century. Known as “Old Lobo,” he gained a reputation as the largest, smartest, and loudest of his kindred. The pack included a white-coated female, Blanca.

These animals were occasionally spotted in the distance by cowboys and shepherds. The wolf pack took a terrible toll on herds and flocks. The problem was made worse by the wolves’ habit of eating only animals they freshly killed.  All attempts to hunt or poison the wolves met with failure. A thousand-dollar reward offered for Lobo’s hide brought in bounty hunters. But the hunters wore out their horses and mourned the loss of large wolf-hounds killed by the even larger wolves. All seemed hopeless from the rancher standpoint.

Part 2: The narrator of the story (Seton), formerly a wolf hunter (in Canada) had for some time made his living at a “stool and desk” as a commercial artist specializing in wildlife illustration. An acquaintance, a ranch owner on the Currumpaw, invited Seton to New Mexico to deal with the wolf problem.

Seton’s approach was to scatter poisoned meat and lay out baited traps. He made every effort to hide any hint of human scent from the traps. But Lobo seemed to taunt him, gathering up baits and scattering “filth” over them. The wolf kicked rocks onto hidden traps, springing them. When Seton hid traps in devious patterns Lobo backed out them unharmed. Nothing worked.

Part 3: After weeks of unrewarded effort, during which Seton made acute observation of wolf habits and ecological role, he noticed something important. While the wolf pack generally stayed behind Lobo, he discovered that Blanca sometimes ran heedlessly ahead. Seton changed tactics. Rather than continue his fruitless efforts to trap Lobo, he instead turned his efforts toward Blanca.

Seton came up with a devious plan. He set out six steel leg traps near a freshly killed cow knowing that Lobo would find and disable them. He removed the head and tossed it casually aside. He buried two traps under the dirt by the head, knowing that wolves would not eat it, and knowing that Lobo would not approach, but betting that one of the others might investigate while Lobo busied himself disabling the other traps.

The following morning Seton returned to find the cow head gone along with one of the traps, dragged away by a strong wolf. He followed the trail for a mile, finding poor Blanca still in the trap and hopelessly dragging the heavy steer head behind her. Despite her terrible situation, Blanca turned to fight with the last of her strength, howling for Lobo, who howled in return. But Lobo could do nothing against men with guns. Seton killed her in a manner he came to regret.

He returned to the ranch with her body. All night the cañons reverberated with the plaintive cries of the bereft Lobo. “It was sadder than I could possibly have believed.” Lobo prowled about the ranch in the dark.

Seton came up with another trick to use against Lobo. On horseback, he dragged Blanca’s body through a field to set out a chaotic pattern that Lobo would attempt to follow. Counting on Lobo’s love and loyalty for his mate, he set out many traps.

Attracted by her scent, the heartbroken wolf did indeed come looking for Blanca.

Seton found Lobo caught in three of four traps. Like Blanca, Lobo made ready to fight upon his antagonist’s approach, even biting through and severing a lasso thrown over his neck. Seton aimed at the animal with his rifle but at the last possible instant, held back, unable to carry out the execution.

Seton and a cowboy threw a stick and heavy cord to the wolf who bit into the stick and became entangled in the cord; they drew the cord tight to close his massive jaw. Unable to bite, Lobo ceased all resistance. They threw the wolf over a saddled horse and returned with him to the ranch. Now a prisoner, Lobo silently watched his passing kingdom.

At the ranch, they secured Lobo with a collar and strong chain, removing the stick and cord from his mouth. Seton offered the wolf water and meat which Lobo ignored. Seton closely examined the wolf, looking into Lobo’s eyes, reaching out and touching him. The wolf just stared out onto the prairie where he and Blanca had roamed free.

During the night Lobo died, the spirit gone out of him. He could not tolerate the loss of strength, the loss of his freedom, and the loss of his beloved mate. Seton placed his body next to the remains of Blanca, reuniting them.

I will not be giving too much away by mentioning that Seton never killed another wolf. Lobo’s death changed Seton, directly influencing much he would accomplish in the world.

The King of Currumpaw exhibition opens at the Academy for the Love of Learning on Sunday August 12 from 2 to 4 pm.