Moseying: History of the Southern Llano Estacado
The wolves of Laguna del lobos locos -- when wolves lived on the Llano Estacado (Part 2 of 2)
November 15, 2006
On Wednesday, November 15th, at 7 p.m, at the Sibley Nature Center, 1307 E. Wadley, Jim and Jamie Dutcher, wildlife documentary filmmakers, will present a free program to the public on their six-year study of wolves in Idaho. Brought here for a program at the Trinity School, they graciously agreed to offer their program at the Sibley Center, as well. Their DVDs will be for sale. Their work has been shown on the Discovery Channel.
Their upcoming visit made me wonder what was it like when wolves roamed the Llano Estacado? Last week I introduced you to El Indio, and now we continue his story for just a few hours longer.
We last left the wolves at Laguna de los lobos locos joining up again as night pressed down. As El Indio rolled up in his blankets under the increasing number of stars as complete darkness swallowed the land, the wolves feasted on a pronghorn antelope that had crashed over the steepest bluff near the seep. It had severely strained a muscle, and the wolves were rewarded for their crafty tag-team relay chase.
One wolf had started the antelope running, and another headed them back towards the playa, and yet a third appeared in front of them as they ran parallel to the bluff. Their only escape was over the bluff, and one was unlucky. Wolves are smart predators, working in teams, utilizing strategy that implies some form of communication. These wolves were hungry, and originally had come to the desplobado (empty lands) of the southern Llano Estacado a few weeks before, following a buffalo herd suffering from a mysterious craziness that differed greatly from their normal behavior.
El Indio had noticed fresh buffalo bones on the way from Muchaque. The bones were around shallow clay playas that had only held water for less than a month after the heavy August and September rains. He found no bones near any of the salt playas. Did that mean they were purposefully seeking out the fresh rain water playas? What relation did that have to the buffalo die-off?
Senor Tafoya had told him thousands of buffalo had died on the north Concho River during the rainy days. Senor Tafoya had thought that at least some of the buffalo had died of screwworm fly infestations. His boss had also wondered what had happened to so many of the buffalo to have serious wounds in their thick hides and pelage. Could the wounds come from flying debris lifted by a tornado spawned by one of the huge super-thunderheads of the past months? When they had discussed it, Tafoya commented that the rainy period meant that the Texas and northern Mexican coasts had probably suffered at least one hurricane. El Indio was in awe of Senor Tafoyas comprehension of the world around him how could he know enough to say hurricanes had caused the rainy period? He had had to ask what a hurricane was, too.
One wolf bossed the others as they fed. Each member of the pack came to him in a submissive posture. The pronghorn was not big enough for all of them to eat their fill. He first let his mate eat. She had suffered some as she had weaned the pups. As she had been weaning them, the supply of buffalo had ended. The surviving ones had suddenly left the region, headed south. This, too, was unusual. Normally the herds of buffalo slowly drifted south into the Concho River watershed as winter brought longer and longer cold spells. The headwaters of the Colorado held the herd during the fall months, until the Comanches arrived to harvest their winter meat supply. Then they would drift on south, harried by the laziest hunters that still needed more meat. Sanaco and his band of Comanches would come over from his winter grounds (at the big bend of the Colorado west of the deserted fort on the creek of live oaks) to hunt the buffalo as they filled the Concho watershed.
Before the Civil War most of the buffalo would have still been going through the Buffalo Gap far to the east, but now did so in much smaller numbers because of hunting pressure from too many Anglos hiding out from the Confederate authorities. The Anglos war had brought in incredible amount of money to Hispanos the Spanish speaking residents of northern New Mexico. The Union Army encouraged Senor Tafoyas trade in cattle, and the Comanches had responded in kind, since in trade they were receiving plenty of guns and ammunition and just about any gew-gaw freighted to their camps. Senor Tafoya had over 200 wagons on the Llano Estacado, and El Indio would add to that number in the spring with the wagons that he was to acquire in El Paso.
El Indio was awakened in the middle of the night by his horses becoming nervous. His warning string had not been needed one of the horses had reared and snorted and as he did had come dangerously close to his bed. El Indio immediately grabbed his rifle and quickly stood, speaking softly to his horses, and pulled on the stake rope for them to be near him. They came, quivering. What had alarmed them?
His answer was immediate. A wolf whined from the darkness of the hackberry grove. El Indio quickly relaxed the wolves knew he was awake and would protect his horses. The whine was of disappointment, which he recognized because of all the dogs he had owned during his life. El Indio built up his fire and heated some more stew. He would get an early start, thanks to the wolves. The wolves did not go on, despite his alertness. He could see their eyes glow, reflecting the firelight. They merely curled up under the hackberries, watching his camp.
After he scuffed out his fire and packed to go, he swung up on his grulla mustang that could handle a steady and lively pace. He knew he had to head southwest, and from what Senor Tafoya had told him, he would not hit any rough country for many miles. The likelihood of prairie dogs was small Senor Tafoya had said the southern end of the Llano Estacado had shallow soils except in the draws and playas, so the little hole-digging, horse-leg breaking varmints would be few and far between. Before he had left Muchaque, hjs boss had spent over three hours describing the way to El Paso. Knowing his life depended on the information, El Indio had paid rapt attention.
He kicked the horse into a slow walk, headed for the ridge to the south. When he topped the ridge, he looked back to see the water in the playa glittering in the waning starlight. He heard the first of the wintering cranes arriving. He loved the sound of their trumpeting. He sat on his horse, enjoying the sounds, but when he noticed that the wolves had followed him, he turned his horse and set out at a speed that would soon tire all horses but his grulla. The Spanish word for cranes is grulla, and his horse was gray as the cranes. The wolves followed, but after a few miles, he could no longer see them in the pink light of the dawn.
Related: Part 1