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.