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Gray wolf photo by Tracy Brooks/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Gray wolf photo by Tracy Brooks/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

South Dakota's Killer Wolf

A gray wolf shot near Custer earlier this year caused a lot of conversation in the southern Black Hills. John Kanta of the Rapid City Game Fish and Parks Department said it wandered from the Great Lakes region. "We have an occasional wolf that wanders through South Dakota. But we don't have a breeding pair. Because of all the livestock we have I don't think they'd fit well here in South Dakota," Kanta told us.

Gray wolves are bigger and stronger than timber wolves. Grays were lording over the river breaks of western South Dakota when farmers and ranchers first settled there. The wolves preyed on livestock, so they were eventually hunted to extinction in South Dakota.

One of the last was a wolf named Three Toes that achieved great notoriety in the hills and plains of northwest South Dakota. Archie Gilfillan, a sheepherder and writer, was intrigued by the local ranchers’ mixture of respect and hate for the wild and wily creature. In his book Sheep, Gilfillan noted that Three Toes "for 13 years laughed at poison, traps and guns, lived in and off enemy country with the hand of every man against him, a cunning, bloodthirsty killer, a super wolf among wolves and the most destructive single animal of which there is any record anywhere.”

So named because he had lost a paw in a trap early in his life, Three Toes gained a reputation as a bloodthirsty killer by 1912. He left his unmistakable paw print at ranches throughout Harding County. Infuriated ranchers tracked his whereabouts and devastating destruction. They estimated that his lifetime of kills exceeded $50,000 in cattle and sheep. 

Three Toes lived to an old age, and reached the peak of his destruction in the 1920s. Gilfillan wrote, "For first, last, and all the time, Three Toes was a killer. Other wolves might kill one cow or sheep and eat off that and be satisfied. But Three Toes killed for the sheer love of killing. He would kill on a full stomach as well as when hungry. On one occasion he visited three different ranches in one night, killed many sheep and lambs at each one, but ate only the liver of one lamb."

Officials bumped the bounty for Three Toes to $500, but no hunter could catch the cunning old wolf. In July of 1925, federal wolf hunter Clyde F. Briggs settled on a ranch near the center of Three Toes’ hunting range. For weeks Briggs set his traps and Three Toes carefully eluded them. But he was tricked on July 23 by a hidden trap. The earth around him was scratched and plowed by his frantic efforts to escape from the trap's grasp by the time Briggs arrived. The trapper muzzled and hog-tied the big wolf and put him in the backseat of his car, intending to deliver him to Rapid City alive. But soon a passenger cried, "I think he's dying."

"Briggs stopped the car, and looking around, found the wolf's eyes fixed on him. But the eyes did not see him, for the wolf was dead," wrote Gilfillan. "Call it a broken heart, or what you will — something of this sort is what killed the old wolf. He was resting easily when found, his wounds were superficial ... but there was something in his grand old spirit that could not brook capture, and Nature, more merciful than he had ever been, granted him his release." 


08:58 pm - Mon, December 17 2012
alicia said:
I like wolves all lot in my life
09:09 am - Sun, January 10 2016
Vito said:
Wolf considering his age and type of wounds he received should have been released anllowed to pass in the country that he was born. Talking an animal into captivity should be done in the supervision of some one who has knowledge of what type of stress an animal such as this experiences when trapped and then transported.
06:14 pm - Tue, July 31 2018
CT said:
You don’t want the Canadian Grey Wolf in the Black Hills it isn’t there natural eco system and the other animals native to the Black Hills are not evolved to deal with this preadator. You wouldn’t introduce An invasive weed into a wheat field or a meadow in the Black Hills? You ask any person born and raised in Idaho how their ability to enjoy the National Forest has been impacted? Look at the elk and moose population before the wolves were implanted and now. Reality Check search the footage of wolves attacking mother elk give birth and the wolves are eating her while she is still alive. Dragging the baby elk out of her eating it. How majestic! Do some research and get real!
01:18 pm - Sun, June 30 2019
CN said:
Sorting through the ignorance and lies in CT’s post requires way more than 2000 characters, but I’ll try. Saying it’s a “Canadian” wolf shows no regard for either patterns of wolf dispersal or that wolves have been naturally recolonizing many states for years now. Wolves don’t grasp our sense of “borders”. Claiming this “isn’t their natural ecosystem” (numerous spelling errors cleaned up) or that native animals “aren’t equipped to deal with this predator” again ignores that these animals all existed together for thousands of years prior to colonization. As for quoting the Idaho experience, many of those accounts display the same ignorance that CT displays. Go look at Idaho’s own counts of the animals and it doesn’t show this decrease. What IS happening is that the deer and elk are adapting to the presence of wolves by not remaining stationary and overgrazing in one area, which, surprise, IS their natural behavior. This movement by the ungulates is in turn making lives more difficult for hunters, sure, but that is how nature works. As to CT’s assertion about wolves attacking mother elk, hey, guess what? ANY predator will attack a vulnerable prey animal. Does CT get mad and rant if a bear attacks an elk? Or a mountain lion? On to the manner of predation, wolves hunt by disabling an animal’s hindquarters while one pack member attempts to go for the throat. Wolves have to attack this way as they lack the specialist teeth of mountain lions and the sheer size and disemboweling claws of grizzly bears. One again, nature at work. Really, CT should take its’ own advice and do some real research, and stop spewing out all the tired and long disproved cliches about wolves.
08:40 pm - Fri, August 23 2019
Bill said:
Wolves have always brought out strong reactions from humans. Why not? Wolves were great competitors for game throughout history and found domesticated animals to be easy prey. So, the battle wages on in the minds of human kind. So the question is: is the wolf evil and needs to be eliminated or is there a place for their kind to live as nature intended. The wolf will never recover the range it once covered nor the numbers it once had. But the world would be a very sad place without this great predator roaming the wilderness and its mournful howl would be missed. The wolf is a symbol of true wilderness and deserves to survive and thrill human kind with its existence.
The story of "old Dakota Three Toes" should not be a clarion call for the elimination of a species. This wolf and a few others who were the last of their kind were often disabled from trap injuries, gunshot wounds, poison and/or old age and do not fit the typical pattern of behavior of intelligent pack animals. They were the way they were due to adapting to their circumstances in order to survive.
I plant hardwood trees to help bring a little environmental balance to the world and value what trees do for our environment. I also have a large deer herd which likes to browse my young trees to death. Many times I wished that large predators like wolves, existed to help control this damage but alas, they wouldn't be able to survive in northern Indiana now as they would be shot so that the deer hunters would have enough "easy" targets. So, now the deer have die offs from starvation in winter and disease issues are now cropping up due to their expansive numbers. The predators would have helped prevent these calamities from occurring.
I hope that the wolf and other large predators are not wiped out and will always have a place in the wilderness and our imaginations.
04:53 pm - Tue, June 9 2020
wellefson said:
Can anyone tell me if there are any books available on Three Toes, the Wolf?
08:07 pm - Tue, October 24 2023
Lori said:
The museum in Buffalo, SD, used to have info on Three Toes. I'm sure the school library does too. Three Toes is as much of a legend as Tipperary is in Harding County
04:42 pm - Fri, December 15 2023
I'm a native born in Whitehorse, SD

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