As children, we all feared what lurked in the dark. The shapeless things that would go bump in the night and haunted our nightmares. For most people, those fears went away with age but, for residents of South Dakota in 1911, that monster was real. A monster with teeth, that walked on 4 legs and decimated their livestock. It was known as the Custer Wolf.
The federal government had 300 hunters and trappers working in the early 1900s to eradicate the predators that threatened livestock. They killed coyotes, bobcats, lynxes, and wolves to a staggering total of 250,000 animals. 3000 of those were wolves. It was believed that one of the only remaining wolves in South Dakota was the Custer Wolf.
He was an elusive wolf whose only tangible evidence of existence was the destruction he left behind. He roamed 300 square miles of South Dakota, not just killing livestock here and there, but massacring entire herds. In 9 years, he did an estimated $25,000 in damage. That’s equivalent to $310,000 today.
One newspaper reported that he was “The cruelest, most sagacious, and most successful animal outlaw”. Another said the wolf was “the master criminal of the animal world”.
Locals believed that the Custer Wolf was seeking vengeance for the death of his mate and their pup. Trackers and hunters said that he was a hybrid. “A monstrosity of nature” that was half wolf and half mountain lion who traveled with two coyotes as bodyguards. The one thing they all agreed on was that the wolf was unkillable. Their only hope for relief would be the wolf’s natural demise.
In April of 1920, the Department of Agriculture hired infamous hunter H.P. Williams to kill the wolf. He was ordered not to leave until the wolf was dead. At that time, the Custer Wolf was known to travel an area in southern South Dakota and had also been spotted in Nebraska and Wyoming. When they had their first encounter, William’s also saw the coyotes that had allied themselves with the apex predator and chose to shoot the two of them first. The Custer Wolf escaped.
Over that summer the two had several close encounters, but the wolf prevailed each time. Finally, one October morning, the Custer Wolf stepped into a swivel trap William’s had set. The animal broke the trap against a tree and ran for another 3 miles. He was severely injured which made tracking an easy task for William’s who finally shot and killed the wolf, 7 months after arriving in South Dakota.
The Custer Wolf didn’t quite live up to the legends. Not a demonic hybrid, but simply a North American Grey Wolf. Not a massive unkillable beast, but a very old and small animal. His pelt was white and he weighed only 98 pounds.
Williams said in an interview that it was the most difficult hunt of his career and that he had the deepest respect for the magnificent apex predator.