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A World Apart

By (November 1, 2017) 2 Comments

American Wolf
By Nate Blakeslee
Crown, 2017

For many of us, seeing a wild animal is followed by the desire to touch it. We hope to reach across the species divide—as we do with dogs, cats, certain birds, and others—and share some intellectual or emotional terrain. At the aquarium, children and adults can stroke rays as they glide past in the tank. At the zoo, special passes might allow visitors backstage to pet, feed, and pose for photos with elephants and cheetahs. These moments help us realize that animals are individuals deserving of not just our compassion, but our respect.

Most wild animals, however, don’t appreciate the human touch. They’ve evolved over millions of years to avoid and defend against predators—especially apex predators like us—and such instincts are hard-wired. In 2006, hands-on animal advocate and TV personality Steve Irwin tried to film a stingray in shallow ocean water. The cornered and frightened creature fatally stabbed him in the heart, proving that no matter how great your enthusiasm, animal minds are a world apart from our own.

Yet if we watch from a respectful distance, we’ll see animals display bravery, malice, hope, and love. Rick McIntyre, a park ranger who has studied wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park for over twenty years, will affirm that they lead rich lives in spite of the prosaic numerical designations bestowed by researchers. Some of Rick’s favorite wolves—like the noble mates 21 and 42 of the famous Druid Peak pack—star in Nate Blakeslee’s new book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West.

In his charismatic bolt of nature writing, Blakeslee mentions the mid-century obliteration of wolves in the lower 48 states through hunting, trapping, and poisoning. The canid’s reputation in folklore as an instrument of darkness only emboldened frontiersmen trying to keep their livestock safe and earn a living on pelts. Coyotes, smaller and more adaptable than wolves, withstood an almost identical campaign of destruction that’s been chronicled in Dan Flores’ Coyote America. Wolves, which are more social and dependent on pack dynamics to survive, were essentially wiped out by the 1920s.

But what happens in an ecosystem without predators? Yellowstone’s elk began thriving, frighteningly so, until their herds had denuded shrubs, trees, and the landscape itself crumbled under the burden. The wolf-less decades saw tides of elk rise and fall, and park officials slaughtered the ungulates by the thousands. By the 1970s, the idea of bringing wolves back became a serious consideration. In an accessible voice that should be read in classrooms nationwide, Blakeslee explains that,

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.

In 1995, fifteen wolves collected in Canada were released in Yellowstone. By 2003 those fifteen individuals—plus another seventeen released in 1996—had become 174, comprising fourteen packs within the park. The most successful pack, that of Druid Peak, was 37 individuals strong at their height and “one of the largest packs ever recorded anywhere in the world.” After countless daily viewings—often surrounded by enthralled park visitors—Rick became certain that the radio-collared wolf known as 21 was responsible. This young male had no pack of his own when he approached the Druids, who had just lost 38, their alpha male. The alpha female, 40, and her sisters (41 and 42) accepted 21, and for three years he mated almost exclusively with 40, who would otherwise maul her sisters and—so researchers presumed—kill any pups they bore.

Halfway through his six-year-reign, 21 “managed to impregnate both subordinate sisters, even as he sired pups with 40 herself.” Though such a drily delivered sentence makes wolves sound like the Mormon Fundamentalists of the animal kingdom, it’s worth bearing in mind that they only live an average of five years, and battling other packs is their leading cause of death. Growing the ranks is paramount, and it’s astonishing that despite the value of healthy pups, 40 went to her sister 42’s den to exterminate her litter. Then 42 and another pair of Druid females, avenging years of abuse, murdered 40.

This placed 21 and 42 together atop the Druids, where they ruled benevolently, electing not to kill 40’s pups but to raise them in a massive litter alongside those of 41 and 42. Rick had also witnessed 21, prior to his alpha days, befriend a physically disabled pup that the rest of the pack shunned. Coupled with the fact that 21 never killed other wolves, even while defending Druid territory, he was “unlike any wolf [Rick] had ever seen.”

But the triumphs of 21 and 42 are merely prologue to the arrival of their winsome descendent, O-Six. Born in 2006 and spending most of her life without a collar, she built the Lamar Valley pack after meeting 754 and 755, two brothers with little experience hunting. Geography helped O-Six’s popularity, since the Lamar area is spacious and highway-adjacent, making it likely the best place in the world to view wolves in their natural habitat. Rick and thousands of Yellowstone guests followed the lives of the Lamar pack in detail.

And yet just north of the valley is Montana, and to the east, Crandall, Wyoming, where “Yellowstone wolves ventured and did not return.” Blakeslee’s book cannot, unfortunately, be purely about wolves, the same way a book about elk would have to discuss that species’ intimate connections. In portraying human hunters, the author brings someone with the pseudonym Steven Turnbull into focus. Turnbull is Rick’s foil, representing the viewpoint that wolves—individuals or not, beautiful or not—are simply part of man’s domain. Should they choose to compete with people who hunt elk for sustenance, then they choose poorly. As if captioning Norman Rockwell paintings, Blakeslee noses for sympathy in this nostalgic passage:

His grandfather had started taking him hunting for rabbit and duck in the backcountry around Cody when he was five years old. When he was a teenager, he’d hunted with his mother’s old 30-40 Krag, the rifle of choice for the U.S. Army before World War I. He wasn’t sure how old the gun was, but it had been given as a wedding present to his maternal grandfather, who then handed it down to his daughter on the occasion of her own wedding. It was reliable only up to a hundred yards or so, with a muzzle speed so slow you could practically see the bullet coming out of the barrel. Turnbull’s sister had asked for it after their parents died, and he hadn’t argued… He was mainly a bow hunter these days. He’d killed moose, black bear, eight-hundred-pound bull elk—any kind of big game you could find in these mountains—with his bow.

Blakeslee illustrates that hunting persists in a moral gray area of human activity, that it provides food, and that it is culturally relevant. But contrast Turnbull’s casual urge to end lives with Rick’s curiosity and dedication to knowing Yellowstone’s wolves, to respecting their existence from afar through a scope and educating the public. The ranger realized that,

If he did skip a day, who knew what he might miss? The celebrated primate researcher Jane Goodall didn’t even have a college degree when she was assigned to watch chimpanzees in Tanzania, Rick liked to remind people, yet she was the first to record the chimps using twigs as tools for fishing termites out of the ground, a discovery that upended the conventional understanding of primate intelligence. She had been in the field for months, much longer than any other observer, before she witnessed that startling behavior. And if you had approached her the day before she made the discovery and asked her if a chimp was smart enough to use a tool to get what it wanted, she would have said no.

Sadly, American Wolf also reveals the majestic carnivore as another scrap of territory in our country’s unending partisan warfare. Many are the battles among wolf advocates, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and politicians regarding the wolf’s status as an endangered species. Animal lovers who can stomach Blakeslee’s courtroom scenes and depictions of slaughter may begin to read the account as a thriller. After all, he introduces a large cast of heroes and a few villains. During the last several chapters, a desire not to know the Lamar Valley pack’s ultimate fate grew in my gut.

Yet knowing how O-Six died keeps her from being an idealized construct. She did not live a world apart but in a corner of this one, to which she had every right. She may also be, thanks to Blakeslee’s reportage, the fulfillment of Rick’s hope for “a story so good that the people who heard it simply wouldn’t want to kill wolves anymore.”

Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.