Preservation pays off

Wolf bounty books provide insight to state bounty program
By 
Katherine Sears
Reporter
Tuesday, May 25, 2021
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A man identified as Trapper Tony LaFountain sits on his horse with coyote pelts hanging on the side of a building in what is assumed to be Fergus County. Some rather famous names appear in the pages of the Fergus County bounty books, including E.C. (Teddy Blue) Abbott, W.H. Culver, Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly and William Cherry. Those thumbing through the pages will surely find family names still in the area today.

Photo courtesy of Lewistown Public Library

A professor at Rocky Mountain College is using Fergus County bounty record books to paint a more detailed picture of the state’s wolf and coyote bounty program of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Tim Lehman, professor of history and political science at RMC in Billings, has been studying wolves and human-wolf interactions for over 20 years, and said the bounty books provide documentation of an important time in the history of the wolf in Montana, and the West.  

“The bounty aspect is one of the key moments for the wolf,” said Lehman, “and there are good records on it.”

Last Wednesday, Lehman presented his research to the public during the Lewistown Historic Resources Commission Preservation Awards ceremony.

A group of volunteers separate from the commission is responsible for the maintenance and distribution of the county’s historic documents, including the bounty books and bounty certificates, which are still kept at the courthouse today.

Volunteers cross-referenced the books with existing certificates and have kept the materials in outstanding condition, which has made this research possible.  

Birth of the bounty
As the American bison disappeared from the western landscape in the 19th century, the wolf followed closely in the path to extinction. A demand for wolf pelts for clothing drove fur traders to kill an estimated 34,000 wolves in northern Montana and southern Alberta between 1871 and 1875.

Homesteaders and cattle began to populate then Montana Territory, including Fergus County, which at the time encompassed approximately 4,824,000 acres of land. The area was later divided into parts of surrounding counties, including Musselshell, Petroleum, Judith Basin, Wheatland and Golden Valley.

In the absence of buffalo, wolf-livestock conflicts heightened, and territorial officials and stock associations began discussing the implementation of a bounty.

“Wolves and buffalo were very closely linked on the plains,” said Lehman. “We begin to see wolf-cattle conflicts when the buffalo died out.”

Beginning in 1883, the territory offered a $1 bounty for a wolf skin, which was tracked by each county in their bounty record books.

Fergus County bounty books, still in mint condition, contain hundreds of names next to numbers of wolves and coyotes presented for bounty at the county courthouse.

“What’s special about the Fergus County records is they give us a more in-depth and personal look at the bounty program,” said Lehman. “If you have ancestors who were here during that time, I bet you could find their names in the books.”

To cash in on a bounty, the hunters, or “wolfers” as they were most often known, needed two witnesses to verify they had killed the animal or caused the animal to be killed. Courthouse officials would then punch a tag through the ear, so it could not be redeemed for bounty a second time, or in another county.   

Lehman points out courthouse officials often signed as witnesses, such as C.M. Kelly, who served as the county clerk and recorder at the time.

With a bounty and additional money paid for the sale of the pelt, wolfing was a lucrative business, and wolfers explored more efficient ways to kill the animals.

Strychnine, or “wolf poison” became a preferred method, as wolfers could kill several wolves at once by lacing bait with the poison.

By 1887, claims became so numerous, the bounty laws were repealed as the territory could not afford to pay them. Reinstated in 1895, the law was slightly altered in 1901 to distinguish bounties between wolves and wolf pups.

“Some wolfers attribute the wolf extermination to the wolf pup bounty,” Lehman explained, as that factor seriously hindered the animal’s survival rate.

Between 1895 and 1923, Montana paid bounties for 6,750 wolf pelts and over 50,000 coyote pelts in Fergus County, first funded by state tax, and later funded through a livestock association levy.

“The program was always underfunded,” said Lehman. “People began treating the bounty certificates like cash and would trade them for food or goods.”

The majority of the bounties were claimed by what seemed to be professional wolfers, according to Lehman, which was contrary to the pattern displayed between 1883 and 1887.

“Most were small claims, but by the early 1900s, that flip-flopped, and only about 5% of wolfers brought in two-thirds of the wolves,” said Lehman.

The wolfers also appear to be predominantly male.

“This seemed to be a male pursuit, which isn’t surprising,” said Lehman.

During his presentation Wednesday, the audience pointed out two female names and several others who may be Metis.

“There may be more Metis than I suspected,” said Lehman. “I learned some things even last Wednesday.”

The bounty records also serve as a proxy for the general population of wolves, Lehman points out. By the 1920s, bounty book entries for wolves were few and far between as the wolf disappeared from the landscape.  

However, the coyote population rebounded, and Lehman offered several reasons.   

“Coyotes are more opportunistic scavengers, so they may have fared well that way,” said Lehman. “They can also run as a just one or as a pack, and they reproduce faster than wolves.”

The presence of the wolf also hindered the survival of the coyote.

“Biologists refer to it as the top dog phenomenon and it’s possible wolves hurt the coyote population,” said Lehman.  
The state bounty program was abolished in 1946, and Fergus County coyote bounties were claimed up until that time.

Continued research
Lehman continues his research on wolves, and hopes to go even further with the information provided in bounty books.

“I think some of the eastern counties would be the most interesting ones, where the majority of the wolves were,” said Lehman. “But it’s (bounty books) not something they necessarily keep or even know they have.”  

In time, his research may turn into a book.

“I hope that this is eventually a book and that Fergus County is a part of the book,” said Lehman.

He also hopes to connect more dots within the pages of the Fergus County bounty books.

“The next step is the distribution of wolves within Fergus County and the other is to connect more personal records, some sort of oral stories or history,” said Lehman. “That’s what I’m hoping to do.”

Lehman encourages anyone with stories, photographs or memories of wolves or bounties in the area to contact him at tim.lehman@rocky.edu.

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