CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “The Last Appalachian Wolf” is a captivating historical novel. It chronicles the lives of wolf packs from 1750 to 1897 in the Cheat Mountain area of West Virginia.
Dr. Edwin Daryl Michael gives the wolves names and the book follows them from generation to generation. Young pups are described from when they stick close to their mothers, and then as they tentatively venture out to play games with each other, all the way to adulthood and becoming pack leaders.
Michael, professor emeritus of wildlife ecology at West Virginia University, spent a 12-year period researching the history of wolves in West Virginia.
A feature of the novel that made it so enjoyable for me to read was the detailed description of the social structure of a wolf pack and how such cohesiveness within the family groups influenced every aspect of the daily lives of pack members.
Mating, rearing of pups, hunting strategies, play and establishment of dominance are important behavioral traits described throughout the novel. Wolves cannot survive without cooperation, and seeing the inner dynamics of their lives gave me a new appreciation and admiration for wolves.
One chapter, “Wolf History,” explores how this social structure influenced the domestication of wolves — the first wild animal to be domesticated by humans, and still considered “man’s best friend” to this day.
After gaining strength and coordination from game playing, eventually the young wolves are invited to go on a first hunt with the adults. The pack leader decides where and when to hunt, and everyone has a role to play for the survival and wellbeing of the pack.
The alpha male is usually the pack leader, but in some cases the alpha female can become the leader.
After showing the dynamics in a wolf pack, Michael describes the land and ecosystem of the Cheat Mountains in present-day Randolph and Pocahontas counties.
Informative and entertaining descriptions of the habits and traits of white-tailed deer, buffalo, elk, black bear, mountain lions, river otter, snowshoe hare, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, ravens, passenger pigeons and golden eagles are in every chapter.
Historical records indicate timber wolves were common throughout West Virginia prior to the arrival of settlers. George Washington and Daniel Boone both encountered wolves in their travels into what is now West Virginia.
According to an article published in the Webster Republican, the last timber wolf in West Virginia, and possibly the last wolf in the central Appalachian Mountains, was killed during a five-day hunt in January 1897. That hunt, which took place in Randolph County and involved as many as 15 men, formed the basis for the final chapters of this book.
“The Last Appalachian Wolf” evaluates the impacts of several historic events on wolf populations of the Allegheny Mountains. Included are: construction of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, construction of Cheat Summit Fort during the Civil War, certain local civil war battles, logging, logging railroads and sheep ranching.
Michael also details the extent of the bounty system in Randolph County, which resulted in payments for the deaths of more than 1,100 wolves during 1800-1840.
Wolves and American Indians peacefully coexisted, although Indians most likely killed a few wolves each year. Of greater significance, wolves benefited from the Indians’ widespread burning of the forests and the subsequent increase in prey animals such as buffalo, elk and deer.
Michael explains the impacts of the major events that ultimately led to the demise of the timber wolf. He believes early settlers had only minor impacts on the numerous packs of wolves that inhabited the region. However, the relentless killing of buffalo, elk and deer by later settlers ultimately led to the demise of timber wolves. With a shortage of natural prey, the remaining wolves began killing cattle and sheep.
Ranchers subsequently turned to steel traps and strychnine in attempts to eliminate wolves. These weapons caused a huge decline in wolf numbers, one from which they would never recover.
Michael has the rare ability to incorporate the natural history of wildlife and the major events of human history within a fascinating novel involving specific individuals, both animal and human. Readers will share the lives of individual wolves as they play, hunt, mate, rear families and meet untimely deaths in the Appalachian wilderness.
The book is available locally at Taylor Books, West Virginia Marketplace at Capitol Market, and online from the West Virginia Book Co. for $12.95. Orders can be placed at 304-342-1848 or www.wvbookco.com.
Bill Clements is the owner and operator of the West Virginia Book Co.