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‘Big Jim’ recalled: Local mother, son remember famous wolf

Betty Durant and her son, Reggie, are familiar with a famous Isle Royale wolf, Big Jim. More wolves are set to be introduced at the national park soon. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — More wolves are expected to be released soon on Isle Royale National Park to improve the predator/prey balance between wolves and moose.

Wolves, however, have long been on the minds of Betty Durant of Marquette Township and her son, Reggie, who lives in Big Bay but often visits the Marquette area.

The National Park Service earlier this year approved the introduction of wolves to restore the predator-prey balance on the island. It is hoped more wolves will create a better balance between the carnivores and their prey — moose — to prevent overbrowsing of trees should the moose population increase because of the lack of predation.

Betty Durant’s experience with wolves goes way back, particularly with a famous wolf named Big Jim.

The late Lee J. Smits was a family friend while she lived in downstate Pleasant Ridge near the Detroit Zoo.

Smits was a lumberman, columnist and radio commentator, among other things, and was a member of Michigan’s first conservation commission and a key figure in the founding of the National Wildlife Federation, according to a 1970 column in The Detroit News about his retirement at age 83 from the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co.

James A.O. Crowe, then outdoors editor at the newspaper, wrote that Smits authored the novel “The Spring Flight,” a textbook on conservation, and many stories and magazine articles.

“He worked briefly on many newspapers outside Detroit, from Marquette to New York, and never let any of his jobs interfere with hunting and fishing trips,” Crowe wrote.

A photo accompanying the column showed Big Jim bringing a duck back to his master on Belle Isle. Crowe said Smits was the only person ever known to have trained a wolf to retrieve ducks.

“Lee was instrumental in the first wolf release at Isle Royale,” Reggie Durant said. “They think in 1949, the wolves crossed the ice bridge to get after the moose. Well, then of course, the moose population was growing, so he was involved.”

Reggie Durant said Smits received Big Jim from the Detroit Zoo in 1951 when the animal was a day old, with the wolf then being fed by bottle at his house.

He also noted Big Jim was of mixed parentage, with his father an Eastern timber wolf and his mother a black-phase wolf from Saskatchewan.

Big Jim grew to a healthy size.

“At eight months of age, he weighed 85 pounds,” Reggie Durant said.

Betty Durant said that in 1951, Smits and his wife Peggy brought “Jimmy” over to her house, which she shared with her late husband Robert.

“Jim stayed close to Peggy because she’s the one that actually spent a lot of time with him,” she said.

The wolf had a lot of appeal for Betty Durant, who even at age 98 still has vivid memories of the animal.

“You wouldn’t know that he was a wolf,” she said. “It was just like a big old German shepherd dog to me.”

According to the book “Wolves of Minong: Their Vital Role in a Wild Community” by the late Durward L. Allen, Big Jim outgrew the Smits’ household and was returned to the Detroit Zoo, where he acquired his nickname.

“Shy of strangers, he would go into transports of joy when visited by the Smits; he was especially fond of Mrs. Smits,” Allen wrote.

Big Jim, along with three other wolves raised in captivity, were released on Isle Royale in 1952. One wolf, Lady, eventually was sent back across Lake Superior to the Upper Peninsula. The rangers later decided the remaining wolves had to be “eliminated” because of behavioral issues.

Queenie and Adolph were shot and killed, but Big Jim ran away after a shot missed and evaded elimination.

“Jim was left as the sole survivor in the wild, and for some years he was something of a legend on the island,” Allen wrote. “As we see it now, with a breeding wolf pack already established, Jim would have been at a great social disadvantage in any attempt to associate with its own kind.”

Reggie Durant said it is unknown whether Big Jim was killed by existing Isle Royale wolves.

However, he believes people during that era didn’t know what they were getting into, and tame wolves shouldn’t have been released onto Isle Royale in the first place.

“Back then, nobody understood wolves very well,” he said. “Of course, the bounty was on for wolves in Michigan at that time.”

His mother added: “It was sad what they were doing.”

Reggie Durant acknowledged that some present-day attitudes have not changed.

“Much to the chagrin of hunters up here, they think that the wolf is the worst thing around in the U.P.,” he said. “That’s probably not the case.”

Reggie Durant, who is the godson of Lee and Peggy Smits, is a hunter. In fact, “Uncle Lee” bought him his first gun and even banded a duck with Reggie’s name on the band.

“Wolves have a rightful place in our society here,” he said. “They’re part of the ecosystem.”

Both Durants are advocates of the NPS plan to reintroduce more wolves on Isle Royale.

“Because of climate change, I don’t think they’re getting the cold winters like they used to,” said Reggie Durant, who believes there should be “allowed and limited” management in the state of Michigan.

Betty Durant also understands the relationship between predator and prey animals.

“That’s the way God takes care of things, you know?” she said.

Reggie Durant has seen several wolves in his lifetime, including one in Alger County while bird hunting, and two others, also while bird hunting, south of Gwinn.

The two he saw near Gwinn, he said, were different color phases: one light and one dark.

Reggie Durant didn’t get much of a chance to get an overly long view of the wolves.

“The second they see you, they’re instantly gone,” he said.

In 2004, when Betty Durant was working the front desk at the Cedar Motor Inn — which Reggie and his wife, Lyn, also Marquette Township supervisor, now own — she was approached by a man who told her a “dog” wanted to get in the inn.

After discovering it was a wolf, she said the police and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources came, but the wolf already had moved from the Marquette Township inn.

However, Big Jim holds a special place in the Durants’ hearts.

“I guess we’re proud to be able to say that we know the wolf,” he said. “It instills a sense of respect for the wolf and their need to be part of our environment.”