Tracking Wellington County bears, wolves, wildcats

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A branch of history that is both intriguing and frustrating to pursue is the one dealing with changes in the natural environment.

The evidence for species of plants and animals that flourished locally is sketchy at best. Moreover, it is prone to more problems of reliability and bias than the sources used for other branches of history.

Over the past 20 years I have been making notes of everything I have stumbled across regarding the evolution of the landscape of Wellington County.

The results are hardly impressive: simply a pile of scattered references, noting reports and observations of the natural environment many decades ago.

I have dipped into this material several times for material for this column, and will do so again this week.

Bears, wolves and wildcats are species that we now associate with the wilderness, but all were once native to Wellington County, and were reported throughout the 19th century.

For reasons that continue to mystify psychologists and anthropologists, wolves have traditionally held the title of most feared species. The early settlers in Wellington encountered them, though only rarely by sight. Their nocturnal howling chilled more than one pioneer family, and they occasionally claimed livestock left out to wander in the woods.

The provincial government placed a bounty on wolves in 1793. It remained in place for 199 years, long after no one could argue there was a “wolf problem” in Ontario. Municipalities frequently added their own bounty.

In the 1830s, the wolf bounty equalled at least $50 in present purchasing power. One of the Bon Accord settlers, near Elora, once asked some natives who were passing through the area why they never tried to kill wolves and collect the bounty. They replied that they heard them all the time, but only rarely saw or got close to one.

In truth, we are not even certain what variety (or varieties) of wolf populated this area in the early 19th century. Scientists have recently been conducting DNA tests on old wolf specimens. Their discoveries, and systematic tracking of live specimens by other scientists, are throwing many previous assumptions about wolves into doubt.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the old reports and sightings that these were real wolves, not the brush wolves or coyotes that are presently enjoying a population increase. These earlier specimens displayed extreme skittishness. Their wariness of human activity pushed them back farther and farther from the settled areas.

By the 1860s, wolves were identified regularly only in the inaccessible portions of the Luther Marsh. Settlement activities here in the late 1860s disturbed them in their last refuge, and the great Luther fire of 1874 decimated most of their habitat and food supply.

This settlement activity and the fire produced a series of encounters between wolves and farmers.

On Sept. 25, 1869, David Ritchie of Concession 5, West Garafraxa, reported six sheep killed by wolves. Three had been almost entirely devoured, only the fur and some bones remaining. A week later, William McMullin lost a half dozen of his sheep, with three more badly mauled.

The only case of an attack by wolves on humans occurred on Oct. 25, 1869. Four wolves circled a West Garafraxa farmer and his wife as they returned home at night after visiting neighbours. The couple fled back to their hosts, and then resumed their journey home bearing torches.

The wolves kept back, their curiosity no doubt intensified by hunger. The deer population had crashed that year. Farmers all over North Wellington noted that deer had disappeared. They blamed the wolves, but it is more likely that the shortage of deer emboldened the wolves, making them seek food in areas they would normally shun.

During October, a group of 11 Elora men went on a deer hunt through West Garafraxa and Luther. With no deer spotted, they decided to pursue wolves, which they heard nightly. The group returned home empty handed.

The last cluster of wolf reports came forward in the fall of 1874, no doubt because of the fires that had burned through the Luther Marsh since July of that year. Several dozen farmers, in a band from East Garafraxa through to Minto, reported sheep killed and devoured, some losing as many as 20.

Wolves undoubtedly received the blame for damage done by dogs. George Wilkin of Concession 5, Minto, just south of Harriston, reported five sheep killed and 19 mauled in November 1874. None were eaten. He was sure this was the work of wild dogs; all had been bitten behind the ear, and most had their throats cut.

Wildcats, most probably the Canada lynx, were reported widely in Wellington County during the 1870s, but only rarely before and after. The disruption of the Luther Marsh in this period could be a factor. Another explanation is that sightings in the earlier period may have been so commonplace that they were not worthy of mention.

Most townships offered a bounty on wildcats. Nichol paid William Masson $8 in January 1875 for killing four specimens. A wildcat invasion seems to have plagued the north of the county the following month.

Mike Sullivan, a young man in Peel, shot a cat near Arthur village. A few days later, Richard English of Arthur Township shot another specimen measuring five feet from nose to tail, and Greg Ternan bagged one almost as large in Luther. Joel Kitely of Concession 11 in Maryborough cornered a large cat in his henhouse, and pinned it to the wall with a pitchfork.

The lynx, if that is what these cats were, prefers snowshoe hares as the staple of its diet. Henhouse raids are certainly possible. Some farmers blamed these cats for the destruction of their sheep, a situation far less likely.

The lynx prefers to hide out in forested areas, and typically shuns farmland. All or some of these reports may have been bobcats, which are more likely to range over farm land. Accounts at the time identified them as either wildcats or lynxes. Reports of these wildcats peter out after 1875. In 1879, Nichol council paid Robert Cattanach $4 for shooting a lynx that had been an unwelcome henhouse visitor. In 1884 there was a report of a huge wildcat roaming in the Arthur area, between five and six feet long. According to one account, it mauled two people, but no names or specific details were ever attached to this tale.

Reports of bears are less common than those of wolves and wildcats. In 1853 a female bear with two cubs was seen several times on the outskirts of Elora, in the area now being prepared for the racetrack, but which was a swamp 150 years ago. Early settlers in Luther Township encountered them occasionally.

A couple of confrontations occurred in 1869. In early November of that year, Bill Gray and Sam Wallace tracked a bear on the north end of the swamp, and finally caught up with it and shot it on Concession 2 of Amaranth. They found two old bullets in the carcass from previous attempts to bring it down. The beast had been terrorizing the area for weeks. It had devoured at least 11 pigs in barnyards over a two-week period. The animal weighed 510 pounds. The hunters cashed in, getting $24 for the carcass and hide.

Three weeks earlier, Bob Powrie and George Cavens had been hunting along the Arthur-Luther town line. They shot a female bear, which became enraged and turned on them. They managed to fire a fatal shot before the bear reached them. Two cubs accompanying their mother scampered off and were never found.

The latest reports of bears come from the 1890s. John Cunningham of East Luther was probably the champion bear hunter of the county. In May 1890 he shot a 400-pound specimen caught in a steel trap. This was the fifth bear he had killed in a two-year period. Reports of wolves, wildcats and bears such as those described here are anecdotal, and prone to inaccuracy. Still, taken together, they can provide a glimpse of the wildlife found in Wellington County a century and more ago.

Bit by bit, they help piece together a much larger story.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Aug. 23, 2002.

Thorning Revisited