Book review: American Wolf, by Nate Blakeslee
Maybe you’ve seen this video that made the social media rounds awhile back, about the effects wolf reintroduction has had on Yellowstone National Park:
It’s a beautiful, almost heartwarming story of humans helping nature to right itself (after humans messed it up in the first place): a feared and misunderstood predator reintroduced to a park where it has an overwhelmingly positive impact on the ecosystem around it. American Wolf is about the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, with a special focus on one wolf in particular, O-Six:
O-Six’s great-grandmother had been one of the first wolves reintroduced to the park, captured on the plains of western Canada, eight hundred miles to the north, and ferried south by plane and truck in the winter of 1995. By that time, Yellowstone had been essentially devoid of wolves for almost seven decades. Once found in virtually every habitat between the Arctic Circle and present-day Mexico City, gray wolves had been the target of a centuries-long campaign of trapping and poisoning—a war waged both for their valuable pelts and to protect livestock. They were all but eliminated by the 1920s across the vast majority of the Lower 48.
O-Six stands out not only because she’s the alpha female of her pack, known as the Lamar Valley wolves, but because she’s exceptional in so many ways. Highly intelligent, she demonstrates to a group of dedicated park wolf watchers and various scientists and naturalists monitoring the Wolf Project that she’s a master of the complicated social dynamics among wolf packs, especially involving effective leadership. She’s also a gifted hunter, a good mother, and a skilled fighter and defender of her family and turf when necessary. O-Six partners for life with an alpha male and his brother, together raising several litters of pups.
But there’s a darker side to this happy story of reintegration and environmental balance. Many locals, such as livestock farmers, weren’t on board with wolf reintroduction, and special agreements were made between the government and farmers about their being able to shoot wolves near livestock. Hunters lobbied for hunting rights, and eventually they were granted. This meant that any wolves straying beyond the protected boundaries of the park (with no way for the wolves to know they were doing so) could be shot by hunters with the proper permits.
In too many sad scenes, dead wolves are identified by their GPS-tracked Wolf Project collars, the serial numbers called into project supervisors as they learn that another wolf they’d been monitoring, allowing them to learn so much about the animals and the park structure, has been killed.
Some of this anger about the wolves was based on historical misunderstandings and long-standing prejudices against them based on their cultural roles:
Everywhere human civilization flourished, wolves were routed, until Homo sapiens, not Canis lupus, became the most widely spread species. Ironically, the dog—a domesticated wolf—became the first line of defense against depredating wolves, which grew more common as wild prey populations declined under pressure from human hunting and loss of habitat. Romans sometimes referred to dawn as inter lupum et canum: “between the wolf and the dog.” Dogs ruled the day, and wolves owned the night. Humanity’s most beloved animal and its most despised were essentially the same creature, but the wolf’s threat to the shepherd’s livelihood poisoned relations between men and wolves, and the wolf’s reputation never recovered. In Western culture, the wolf became an embodiment of wickedness, from the Middle Ages, when the werewolf myth first appeared, to Grimm’s fairy tales in the early nineteenth century. Early Christians—“the flock,” as believers were called—saw themselves represented in the sheep; their shepherd was God. The wolf that preyed upon the flock was the devil himself.
And now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had brought the devil back to the Northern Rockies.
Discrimination and a fervid desire to hunt them seems to stem from the misguided belief that wolves in the park would hurt the elk population, which was depended on both for tourism and for food by some locals. What wasn’t understood was how the elk needed the wolf in order to thrive, and the two species had coexisted together long before humans were even on the scene. It was a big factor in the initial culling of wolves from the park, leaving it empty of them for 70 years.
As a science, wildlife management was still in its infancy, and park officials genuinely believed that predators would eventually decimate the park’s prey population if left to their own devices. They didn’t realize that wolves and elk had coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run just as fast as the wolf but no faster. Wolves were the driving force behind the evolution of a wide variety of prey species in North America after the last ice age, literally molding the natural world around them. The massive size of the moose, the nimbleness of the white-tailed deer, the uncanny balance of the bighorn sheep—the architect of these and countless other marvels was the wolf.
The book covers the reintroduction project and those involved, the passionate people observing its progression over the years within the park, and the legal and government battles over permission to hunt or merely shoot wolves, in addition to following the stories and behaviors of individual wolves and packs. It’s a fascinating natural history, with a surprisingly emotional look at the wolves’ lives and sometimes, deaths.
Rick McIntyre is perhaps the strongest human presence in the narrative, a biological technician at Yellowstone who devotedly studies and observes the wolf packs daily, not missing a day in years. Often through his perspective, the stories of O-Six and her pack, and of others like Rick’s favorite wolf, dubbed 21, a benevolent alpha male with a big personality, are related in great detail, with science subtly, simply woven in so even lay readers can understand the significance of events and behaviors.
There’s so much to learn from this book, not only about wolves and their environmental role, but about humans. It’s not all good. The uglier sides and inclinations of both humanity and the animal kingdom are on display. At least with animals, it’s the result of instinct through evolution. Humans choose their awful behavior.
Blakeslee writes in a readable narrative style, intermingling facts, history, and natural science into a smooth, well-told story. Some of the chapters detailing the legal battle were less compelling, but their outcomes heavily impacted the story, and it’s hard to relate this legal-governmental wrangling in a lively way.
A moving account of humans trying to fix our mistakes in nature, dispelling myths about an alpha predator integral to the North American ecosystem, while highlighting both the struggle for existence and the shiningly vivid personalities and lives of some of Yellowstone’s beloved wolves.
My rating: 3.5/5
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West
by Nate Blakeslee
published October 17, 2017 by Crown Publishing Group
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