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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.