American Wolf

Dec 13, 2017

If you have visited Yellowstone Park you understand its natural beauty and majesty. Spanning just under 3,500 square miles, Yellowstone is mainly situated in Wyoming, though parts stretch into Montana and Idaho as well. “Old Faithful” erupts like clockwork every single day, but there are also hundreds of smaller geysers and pastel hot pots bubbling and gurgling under a blanket of steam.

But behind all that spellbinding scenery is the fierce political battle over wolves inhabiting the park. In 1995 thirty-one wolves were trucked into Yellowstone from Canada, after being hunted and cleared from the park nearly a century ago. Today, their numbers have grown to 10 packs (several hundred wolves) vying for control of the stunningly beautiful Lamar Valley. In recent years threats from hunters and trappers has intensified, pitting ranchers against conservationists and prompting some states to permit limited wolf hunting again at certain times. The wolf reintroduction has ignited a battle of the very soul of the West.

These forces collide in the stellar new book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West ($28, Crown) , a riveting multigenerational saga of hardship and triumph that tells a larger story about the ongoing cultural clash in the West—between those fighting for a vanishing way of life and those committed to restoring one of the country’s most iconic landscapes. More than four million people visit Yellowstone annually, and wolves are one of the main attractions.

With novelistic detail, author Nate Blakeslee tells the gripping story of one of these wolves, O-Six, a charismatic alpha female named for the year of her birth. The matriarch of the Lamar Valley, O-Six is uncommonly powerful, with gray fur and faint black ovals around each eye. she is a kind and merciful leader, a fiercely intelligent fighter, and a doting mother.  Beloved by wolf watchers, O-Six becomes something of a social media star, with followers around the world. Still, the moment O-Six lopes on to stage, you get the uneasy feeling her fate is tied to the political strife around her.

But as she raises her pups and protects her pack, O-Six is challenged on all fronts: by hunters, who compete with wolves for the elk they both prize; by cattle ranchers who are losing livestock and have the ear of politicians; and by other Yellowstone wolves who seek to become "top dogs" in the Lamar Valley in the park's mountainous Northern Range.

Blakeslee, a writer for Texas Monthly, is a gifted storyteller, but the rich particulars of American Wolf were drawn from thousands of pages of observations documented firsthand by the crew of dedicated wolf watchers—“wolf groupies,” to dismissive locals—who have been flocking to Yellowstone National Park since the controversial reintroduction of Canis Lupus. At the human center of the story is Rick McIntyre, a 67-year-old veteran biologist known as "Iron Man" for his 891-day wolf-sighting streak and former school teacher Laurie Lyman's 800,000 word wolf-watching diary.

There are echoes of Jack London everywhere in Blakeslee's masterful and elegant story that delivers true profiles of wolf lives lived in their actual families. Blakeslee has brilliantly shown who these creatures are, making clear the politics that gets played with these wolves' lives. You will learn as much about human behavior as you do about the wolves. We are not all that different.