E.A. Powell was trying to sleep at his West Alabama home one evening in the late 1830s. Suddenly he awoke to frightening sounds and instantly knew the source—wolves! Over 50 years later Powell wrote: “In almost every part of the county they made night hideous with their howlings. I have heard them break out in the swamp as late as ten o’clock in the morning, and less than half a mile from the house.”
The wolf was a widespread predator in early Alabama. Over half of Alabama’s 67 counties have features named for them—including Wolf Creek near Tuscaloosa. Additionally Alabama’s major Indian tribes (Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and Chickasaw) had clans or kinship groups named for the wolf. But as forests became farms and pastures, wolves were relentlessly hunted and their numbers declined drastically. One of the last local encounters was reported in the West Alabama Breeze on June 14, 1913. An 85 lb. wolf was killed in a rural area east of North River that now includes several Tuscaloosa neighborhoods. It killed 14 sheep belonging to A. L. Kizziah and other livestock. According to the Department of Conservation the wolf disappeared from the state in about 1920.
Like wolves, black bears were widespread. Features are named for them in 51 Alabama counties. There are five Bear Creeks in Tuscaloosa County alone. Moody Swamp, partially within Tuscaloosa’s city limits, was once known as Bear Haven Swamp. Choctaws and Creeks, the tribes nearest Tuscaloosa, had bear clans. In Fifty-Five Years in West Alabama, E. A. Powell noted an early Kentuck (Northport) merchant who displayed a pet bear.
Perhaps the most feared predator was the panther (a.k.a. mountain lion, cougar, puma or catamount). Like the wolf, all four Alabama Indian tribes had panther clans. As late as 1891 they were still found locally. A “mad catamount” reportedly attacked some men in what became Tuscaloosa’s Rosedale and Kaulton neighborhoods. In 1953 a panther was said to have been killed at Lock 14 about six miles from the city, however, the last officially confirmed wild panther was in St. Clair County in the 1940s.
Not all local predators were mammals. In 1887 the Tuskaloosa Gazette reported that fishermen killed an 11-foot alligator south of town. In early times alligators were found throughout Alabama south of the Tennessee Valley. As the state was settled, alligators became very rare. In 1938 Alabama became the first state to protect alligators and by the 1960s their numbers began to climb. In 2006 there was sufficient recovery to allow hunting. In 2010 a near 13 footer was removed after wandering from a Hale County lake owned by Tuscaloosa dentist William Wright. Big “Mo” was deemed a potential threat to nearby children. In 2014, an official world record specimen nearly 16 feet long and weighing over 1000 lb was taken near Camden, AL.
Elk or “issi chito” (big deer) as they were known to the Choctaws, inhabited most of the state. According to the Department of Conservation they disappeared by the early 1800s. In 1916 an effort was made to reestablish them in Tuscaloosa and other counties. The attempt failed in part because the elk became fond of vegetable gardens. Recently wild herds have been established in several nearby states.
The largest mammal occurring in historic times in Alabama was the American bison or buffalo. Their original range covered much of the United States. By 1800, bison were largely gone from the East, probably disappearing from Alabama in the early 1700s. Early settler John Ezell attempted to establish a herd in Autauga County in 1825 with animals purchased from a Mexican horse trader but the attempt failed. The massive beasts refused to be fenced.
Except for alligators; wolves, bears, panthers, elk and bison are absent or relatively rare in Alabama. However, through conservation and restoration efforts most will likely return to at least part of their former habitats.