Volume No. 16 Issue No. 3 March 2019  



  “American Wolf”
  By Robin Widmar

     Humans and wolves have long had a complicated relationship. Some people admire wolves for their nobility, intelligence and loyalty to one another. To others, wolves are nothing more than pests to be eradicated. But there is probably no other place on earth where wolf/human interactions garner more attention than Yellowstone National Park.
   
   In “American Wolf: A Story of Survival and Obsession in the American West,” author Nate Blakeslee examines the history of wolves in North America and the efforts to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone. Along the way, he introduces the reader to gray wolves, their advocates and their detractors. Blakeslee typically writes about political affairs, so it seems only natural that he intertwines the politics of wildlife management with the story of O-Six, one of the world’s most famous wolves.
   
   To understand how Yellowstone’s wolves landed in their present situation, Blakeslee looks at their history. “Wolves were once the most widely distributed land mammal on earth,” writes Blakeslee. “Everywhere human civilization flourished, wolves were routed until Homo sapiens, not Canis lupis, became the most widely spread species.” When Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, wolves were hunted, trapped, and poisoned into oblivion in a misguided attempt to protect other species in the park.
   
   The 1995 reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone was controversial but produced positive results. The wolf population has grown. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is recovering from overgrazing and habitat damage caused by too many elk. Even local economies profit from tourists who visit specifically with wolf-watching in mind. But not everyone celebrates the wolves, especially when they stray across park boundaries onto public and private land. Hunters compete with wolves for large game. Ranchers defend their livestock against them. Politicians at all levels try to appease constituents whose strong feelings about the wolves range across the entire spectrum.
   
   Blakeslee presents a number of real-life people and wolves, but “American Wolf” centers on O-Six, an alpha female wolf nicknamed for the year she was born. Readers come to know O-Six well as she seeks and finds a mate, establishes her own pack, bears three litters of wolf pups, and attains “rock star” status among her human admirers. Descended from the original wolves brought to Yellowstone, she was known for being a savvy and merciful leader as well as a formidable hunter. Although she was killed by a hunter who was legally permitted to take her life, O-Six’s legacy lives on in her descendants and the notoriety she acquired while she lived.
   
   One of the key players in O-Six’s story is Rick McIntyre, a National Park Service employee first introduced to readers on his 3,467th day of watching wolves in Yellowstone. A devoted watcher of the wolves, McIntyre methodically compiled daily notes with a goal of someday writing his own book. The more he learned about Yellowstone’s wolves, “The more responsibility he felt to tell their story.” His observations, along with comprehensive notes from fellow wolf-watcher Laurie Lyman, provided Blakeslee with valuable insights into the personalities and behaviors of the wolves in his book.
   
   Wolves do not recognize lines on a map, and problems arise when they cross the Yellowstone park boundaries into adjacent private and public lands. But the issue goes deeper. Blakeslee writes, “Wolves were just the latest flashpoint in a fight that had been simmering in the West for decades. The real struggle was over public land — what it should be used for and who should have the right to decide.” By the end of the book, it is clear that when humans manage wildlife, right and wrong sometimes takes a back seat to political favor and backroom deals. As Blakeslee notes, wolves are just “another commodity in Capitol Hill’s never-ending swap meet.”
   
   Blakeslee is a capable storyteller who fully immerses readers in an honest and engaging story that will likely stay with them long after they have turned the last page. Although the author relies on his journalistic skills to balance the multiple facets of the issues surrounding Yellowstone’s wolves, he does appear to lean toward the side of the wolves. It is hard to stay neutral after learning so much about their intelligence, emotions and complex social hierarchies. When the hunter who killed O-Six proudly shows Blakeslee her luxurious pelt, the author’s discomfort with the situation is painfully clear.
   
   “American Wolf” is a must-read to gain insights into both the complexities of wolf management in the Northern Rockies and the often-persecuted species itself. More than that, it is a tribute to the Yellowstone wolves, especially O-Six and her pack. With luck, steadfast resilience and people who continue to advocate for them, the wolves who reside in one of the world’s most unique national parks will be enjoyed by future generations.
   
   See Lindsey Harrison’s article, “Wolf-dog hybrids popular but short-lived as pets,” which brings attention to wolf-hybrids and the pet industry.
 
 
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