Wednesday, April 20, 2016

When Wild West cowboys showed up on the Ontario frontier

Airborne wolf hunter Harley Rauch with the head of a timber wolf which earned him a $25 government bounty payment.

Parry Sound North Star
By John Macfie

Today’s column is a parting shot from the young and careless days when I was a wildlife management officer based in the Northwestern Ontario town of Sioux Lookout. My memory of this episode was refreshed while reading some letters I wrote home 65 years ago.

 The story concerns an adventuresome pair of flyers from South Dakota named Harley Rauch and Cliff Foss. They were Second World War pilots (Cliff’s brother Joe was the top-scoring fighter ace of the U.S. Marine Corps and a recipient of the Medal of Honor) who took up cattle raising post war.

 They also moonlighted as aerial bounty hunters, and boasted of collecting bounty money on as many as a thousand coyotes annually in the Dakotas.

In 1949 Rauch and Foss flew north seeking bigger game (and, at $25, bigger bounties) in the form of Northwestern Ontario timber wolves.

They struck an unexploited bonanza.

The lake-studded wilderness surrounding Sioux Lookout and the lifestyles of timber wolves differed markedly from the dry Dakotas and the habits of coyotes, but the pair quickly adjusted hunting strategy to suit.

During three or four weeks in February and March 1951, for example, our Fish & Wildlife office in Sioux Lookout processed around 80 timber wolf bounty claims submitted by the two pilots.

This was evidence enough that the Americans were onto something, but a couple of us in the office, the district biologist and I, wanted to know exactly how they ran up such scores. Finding out required getting up close and personal.  

Foss flew a ski-equipped Aeronca with a gunner stationed in the rear seat, while Rauch worked solo, shooting from the left window as he flew his Piper Cub.

There was sufficient room behind Rauch’s seat to squeeze in a passenger, and the district biologist was first to go up (maybe we tossed a coin). Then it was my turn to go along for the ride, and a merry ride it was.

We took off at 6 a.m., for the hunters had learned by trial and error that wolf packs were most likely to be out on the ice during the first three hours of daylight.

The two aircraft went their separate ways to patrol the shorelines of some of the hundreds of lakes lying with a 75-mile radius of Sioux Lookout, watching for wolf tracks and wolf-killed deer.

This day, Rauch flew east to follow a chain of lakes contributing to the English River.

After half an hour of low-level flight, Rauch pointed to a lone wolf about 50 yards out on the crusted snow surface of Minnitaki Lake. Appearing strangely pink in the light of the just-rising sun, it blended in perfectly with the equally pink snow, and I would have missed it entirely.

Throwing the Cub into a one-eighty turn, Rauch descended to ten feet above the ice in order to pull abreast of the animal. However the wolf, apparently having learned to fear low-flying aircraft, beat the Cub to the sheltering shoreline.

Never mind, Rauch had an app for that. Plan B was to keep the animal close to shore by flying back and forth in an arc a short distance back in the bush. All the while dodging the tops of the taller white pine trees, on the initial fly past Rauch poked his pump shotgun out the window and fired a random shot to halt the animal’s flight.

On the next pass, the alarming odour of something burning grabbed my own attention.

Then I saw Rauch throw something out the window, sparking and smoking as it went. It was a string of firecrackers, cheaper than shotgun ammo and likely more effective, for the miniature explosions could sound like cracking brush.

In short order the wolf scooted back onto Minnitaki Lake.

The Cub swooped like a hawk and in an instant was approaching the running animal from behind, at naught feet. Rauch’s knees, between which the control column was now firmly tucked, were doing the flying, and both hands clutched the shotgun, the barrel of which was cradled in a dent hammered in the aluminum windowsill by countless recoils. When the line of sight crept to within a tail’s length of the tip of the wolf’s tail Rauch pulled the trigger and the animal rolled to a dead stop.

We discovered no more wolves that morning, and back in Sioux Lookout we learned that Foss had had no luck at all. That year, three weeks flying yielded only 29 wolves, one-third of the previous year’s bag.

And the following year, two weeks of scouring the lakes yielded only a dozen kills.

At that point, Cliff Foss received word of the loss to fire of his brother Joe’s hangar and aircraft, and Harley Rauch came down with a case of the mumps, preventing him from flying back home.

Altogether, 1953 ended in disappointment for the cattlemen from South Dakota.

They returned to Sioux Lookout during two or three subsequent winters, but facing a smaller population of wiser wolves bounties collected hardly paid for the aviation fuel.  

A few other owners of ski planes dabbled in the aerial wolf-hunting game at the time, but none raised it to the science that Rauch and Foss did. And no others attracted as much publicity — both good and bad.

Eventually the government concluded that shooting a wolf from an airplane wasn’t nice, and amended the game laws accordingly.

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