The wolf. It so happens that one of the most contentious issues today isn’t gender, race, taxes, climate, abortion, gun laws, free markets vs. regulation, religion, immigration, or health care. (Have I caught your attention or bored you?) Turns out, it’s the wolf — the ancestor of the beloved four-legged creature curled up on your living room couch.
It’s Nate Blakeslee’s project in AMERICAN WOLF to lay out the never-ending conflict surrounding Yellowstone National Park — between wolf haters and wolf lovers. He does so with a sharp yet sympathetic eye. His book, which reads at times like a novel, even an action thriler, is a work of reportage that balances the concerns of both ranchers and rangers. Although it’s fairly clear which side of the debate Blakeslee falls on, no one is painted with villainy, and readers will come away with an appreciation for the legitimacy of both sides.
We’re offered an intimate view of Yellow Stone’ wolf packs, especially some of its biggest stars: O-Six, Limpy, and 21. We learn about family structure, vicious territorial fights, and take-downs of elk. It’s impossible not to be in awe of the wolf’s intelligence, endurance, sense of fairness, and even willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the pack.
Of course, there’s another side to the story. Once the valleys around northern Yellow Stone were full of elk. Families supported themselves through hunting, which for many was “less a sport than a means of supplementing the family food budget.” After the introduction of the wolf in 1995, the area’s elk population dwindled in size from 19,000 to 6,000. Decimated, too, was an entire industry — along with jobs — devoted to hunting: lodges and inns, outfitters, guides, butchers, cooks.
Resentment runs high. A local resident, overhearing a tourist exclaim to his son how lucky they were to have witnessed a wolf run down an elk calf, berates them: “You weren’t lucky!” He lets them know he’s seen plenty of calves ripped apart by wolves every spring. “Wolves aren’t special. Wolves are killers,” he tells them.
Indeed swathes of grazing land are testimony to wolf predation — littered as they are each year with shredded, bloody carcasses of sheep and cattle, creatures with no natural defenses. And no, their deaths are not instant or painless.
We follow Blakeslee into court, listening to both sides of a lawsuit to halt the wolf’s removal from the Endangered Species List and allow them to be hunted. Technical, legal, and devoid of emotion, attorneys and scientists on both sides lay out their cases. It’s not the most riveting of chapters; still, it is interesting and lends gravitas and depth to the book.
Most compelling is the story of O-Six, Yellow Stone’s biggest celebrity. Named for the year she was born, she is beautiful and mesmerizing, admired by thousands of fans across the U.S., who have been captivated by her exploits on social media. We also follow a lone hunter who crosses her path. He’s an elk hunter, a fair man, who believes long-range rifles are unethical: hunting should be a fair chase. So he prefers the “elegance” of a bow, which Indians used to hunt the elk for hundreds of years in these same hills.
But this story is larger than a single wolf and a single hunter. AMERICAN WOLF Is an epic tale of generations of alphas and pups, of competing interests and declining fortunes, of human resentments and grudging compromise — all of it played out against one of nature’s most spectacular landscapes. The book is thought-provoking and eye-opening — and a superb read. Highly recommended.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.