Culture Clash in the Hinterlands
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West
By Nate Blakeslee
Crown Publishing Group, 2017, 300 pages
This is how I explained it to my nine-year-old niece in hopes that she would get the big picture, the science inside Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West: It had been 70 years since a ranger shot the last wolf in Yellowstone to “protect big game” within the national park. Now the goal was to make the ecosystem whole again. So in 1995, park officials released 15 wild Canadian wolves, and by 2013 nearly 200 wolves roamed the region in more than a dozen packs, sometimes spiraling outside the park’s boundaries.
And it gets better. The park’s Serengeti-like herds of elk get skittish around wolves and no longer graze on the creek-side willows that beavers depend on. So beaver colonies have multiplied. The wolves also destroyed half the coyote population and rodents doubled in number, so more and more raptors like owls and hawks are patrolling the sky. There’s even a parade of carnivores surviving off the buffet of leftover wolf kills. What’s in play here is an ecosystem restored and running on all cylinders. Yes, dear niece, time and instinct – the life forces that really kick ass – are all invisible.
What I didn’t tell my niece is that the fate of the Yellowstone wolves hangs in the balance for reasons that have nothing to do with science, nothing to do with maintaining intact ecosystems. I can’t even paint a picture of the pretzel logic that governs their fate for myself, let alone for anyone else.
But Nate Blakeslee has.
Using a mellow and restrained voice, Blakeslee tells a heart-tugging story about character, courtship, and the shifting social relationships of Yellowstone northern range wolves, as well as the lives of people who study them and those that want to kill them.
In writing, as in science, there is no delight without the detail. American Wolf is sure to delight readers with its fully rendered scenes, extended conversations, and subjective depictions of mood.
An alpha female and viral social media star known as 0-Six (after the year she was born) stands tallest in Blakeslee’s multigenerational tale of Yellowstone wolves. “Seeing her in action was like following a gifted athlete,” he writes. A den mother and unfailing breadwinner in the family, 0-Six is a smart, strong, and caring leader. She is beloved by wolf watchers, particularly Yellowstone park ranger Rick McIntyre, who “never wore the standard issue green clip-on tie.” McIntyre’s 2,632 consecutive days of observing the wolves yielded an authoritative survey of what is known, what is believed, and what is still obscure about normal patterns of wolf behavior in Yellowstone.
McIntyre found that stories about individual wolves really, really interested the folks who stopped alongside the road and spoke with him. They liked wolves like Limpy who overcame disabilities and thrived. It’s the formula Blakeslee, too, adopts by making 0-Six a central figure in his narrative.
An investigative reporter and a staff writer at Texas Monthly, Blakeslee works the old fashioned way; he shows up in person, looking people (and animals) in the eye, face to face, observing everything first hand. What he admires most about the wolves seems to be qualities of human beings – capacities of spirit – rather than adaptations or the pure biology of predators. For example, who knew that empathy is the most important trait an alpha wolf must have?
The author also revisits the concerns of rural families where an elk kill means 250 pounds of meat in the freezer and “buying a lot less hamburger.” Wolves can mean fewer elk in prime hunting territory outside the national park. Professional hunters, whose clients pay $5,000 for a hunt, don’t like wolf competition either.
In December 2002, 0-Six became yet another victim of the cultural forces fighting for control over public land and resources in the American West: A local trophy hunter with a whistle mimicking a dying cottontail rabbit and a long-range rifle killed her.
The listing and delisting of wolves on the federal lineup of protected species is a political jigsaw. But American Wolf is not a diatribe from a seat of moral judgment. It is a thoughtful, empathic account that explores the concerns of both those who want to protect wolves and those who would like to kill them, and is more than worth a read.