There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, pour yourself a glass of something good, and take mental notes as we look at Three Toes the livestock slaying wolf.
South Dakota drew all sorts of larger-than-life Old West characters prior to statehood. A relatively lawless territory prior to 1889, the Black Hills attracted the type of folks looking for quick money, slow justice, and open space, especially during a short-lived gold rush. Wild Bill Hickok, Crooked Nose Jack McCall, Calamity Jane Cannary, Colorado Charlie Utter, and Potato Creek Johnny all resided in The Rushmore State, some more permanently than others (Bill, Jane, and Johnny are buried there). But, the most savage outlaw of them all didn’t arrive until 20 years later—Three Toes the Wolf.
According to legend, Three Toes was the last remaining gray wolf in the tri-state area of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. He gained reputation as a bloodthirsty killer in 1912 thanks to regular livestock massacres and an unmistakable paw print. His fourth toe stayed behind in a rancher’s trap a few years prior, the beginning of Three Toes’ career evading humans and eating off their animals.
Slaughters peaked in the early 1920s as the wolf became one of the most wanted “fugitives” in the country. Local ranchers regularly dealt with predators, but none as ruthless or methodical as this.
“Other wolves might kill one cow or sheep and eat off that and be satisfied,” area sheepherder Archie Gilfillan wrote in his 1929 book “Sheep.” “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.”
The state placed a $500 bounty on Three Toes in 1920, but ranchers already had enough financial motivation to stop the wolf.
“In 1923, Three Toes killed $2,000 worth of stock,” according to text accompanying a statue of the wolf near Buffalo, SD. “In 1922-1924, he practically cleaned out the lamb crop in northwestern South Dakota.”
Dozens of hunters failed to stop Three Toes, despite deploying everything from poison and traps to guns and hounds. The Haivalva Boys, a local ranch family, followed the wolf for 140 miles without ever getting a shot. John Martin, a state depredation hunter, ran Three Toes for 200 miles, but lost the wolf when its tracks disappeared on the ice of the Grand River. During another unsuccessful, three-day-long chase, Three Toes even stopped mid-pursuit to slaughter 15 sheep in a corral.
The infamous wolf combined athleticism and wits to avoid capture. As his kill count grew, so did the amazing tales of elusiveness.
“When hard pressed by pursuers, Three Toes employed such tricks as circling, back-tracking, breaking circle, leaping over ground or snow drifts that would leave a trace of his passing, then charging into a bunch of cattle or sheep to scatter them so they would obliterate his trail,” the Three Toes statue reads. “One time he hid in the carcass of an old horse. Another time, being hard pressed by a pack of hounds, he jumped up over a 12-foot bank and left the dogs behind him.”
After a 13-year reign, the USDA finally sent in its greatest wolf specialist from New Mexico, Clyde Briggs. Briggs had a reputation for catching uncatchable predators, and Three Toes had certainly gained that status among local cowboys. By this point, the wolf had caused over $50,000 in damage by slaying hundreds of cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep. Accounting for inflation, that’s $650,000 today.
Briggs arrived in Harding County, South Dakota, on July 6, 1925. After weeks of interviewing locals and surveying the land, he settled in on a ranch where the legendary wolf tracks were recently spotted. He laid an extensive trapline, making sure each set had multiple footholds that guaranteed Three Toes wouldn’t just become Two Toes.
The plan worked. On July 25, Briggs found the wolf with a front leg and back leg in traps.
He wouldn’t escape this time—Three Toes had past his prime and showed his age. The wolf worked itself to exhaustion overnight and barely acknowledged Briggs as he approached. Despite being 6 feet long, the wolf weighed just 74 pounds.
Briggs decided he’d temporarily spare Three Toes and deliver him alive to Buffalo, the county seat. But on the short car ride there, the hated yet respected wolf perished.
“Call it a broken heart, or what you will, something of this sort is what killed the old wolf,” Gilfillan wrote. “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.”
Feature image of Briggs and Three Toes.