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American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (Crown, Oct. 2017)
Crown
American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (Crown, Oct. 2017)

In the opening pages of Nate Blakelee’s captivating “American Wolf,” a hunter is trudging through snow, not far from a road, blasting on a whistle that mimics the wail of an injured cottontail. He’s an elk hunter but that’s not what he’s after on this day. He has a license to kill a wolf, a contentious predator that stalks elk in and around Yellowstone National Park while beguiling glass-peeping watchers. It’s nearing dusk when he spots two wolves. A large black male. A smaller gray. The wolves see the hunter but don’t run. They are used to people. He raises his gun.

From that first gripping chapter, Blakeslee carries readers into the politically fraught world of wolves in Yellowstone, where, since reintroduction in 1995, generations of elk-feasting tribes have thrived, creating a roadside wildlife diorama unlike anything  in the world.

Blakeslee’s riveting account is an “East of Eden” with wolves. Immigrants from afar arrive in a new land, where they fight and flourish, seeding generations of kin that roam valley and range. Tribal factions emerge, bloody battles rage and heroes shine.

Rick McIntyre, the naturalist narrator of all things wolves in Yellowstone, watches every day, documenting the drama. Blakeslee, an award winning journalist from Texas, persuaded McIntyre to share thousands of pages of dutifully recorded notes spanning more than 15 years. From those notes, as well as hundreds of interviews, Blakeslee crafts a novelized glimpse at many generations of Yellowstone wolves with a focus on an especially adept matriarch named O-Six.

The radio-connected, scope-toting community of wolf watchers followed O-Six for years as she birthed and raised three litters. They marveled as she deftly taught a pair of dim brothers how to hunt elk. They documented her intelligent captaining of her tribe, navigating threats from other wolves, ranchers and hunters, emerging as a canine luminary watched from afield and afar on social media.

Through the notes of McIntyre, who probably has watched more wolves than any human ever, Blakeslee conveys the wolves’ capacity for empathy that enthralled watchers. He describes individual quirks, moods and strengths of alphas and tribes.

The Yellowstone wolf watchers understandably grow attached to the wolves. As do Blakeslee’s readers. The inevitable territorial battles often leave us mourning. But not as much as when a pack would venture outside federal lands and prey on cattle, forcing wildlife managers to shoot the marauding packs.

Outside the park, hunters and guides in communities that relied on elk hunting as an economic engine fret the decline in wolf-stalked elk herds. Big game hunting as a business is fading and towns built on elk hunting are losing their identity. And the wolf carries the brunt of the blame for that withering.

It’s a centuries-old epithet for wolves: wicked. And in the Northern Rockies, the restoration of wolves stirs an animosity that still thrives in many corners of the West.

Blakeslee recasts the evil wolf as an architect of ecological harmony. There might have been 2 million wolves roaming North America when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the wholesale slaughter of the animals in the following two centuries had left ecosystems out of whack. It was a killing campaign unlike any other in history, where one species wipes out another. The restoration effort in Yellowstone and Northern Rockies was an attempt at reparations. And McIntyre’s dream, buoyed by Blakeslee, is to share individual stories of the wolves; stories that connect and resonate. Essentially, McIntyre is on a public relations crusade with the heartfelt idea — one shared by Blakeslee — that once everyone hears stories about wolf culture, families and interactions, no one would want to kill a wolf.

But making wolves famous does not help wildlife managers, who walk a fine line between initial promises to keep wolf numbers low in Western states and the surging popularity of some wolves who, if things go bad, have to be hunted and killed.

It wasn’t long after the reintroduction in the mid 1990s that wolves became one of the West’s most polarizing issues. State lawmakers in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana fought to limit the spread of wolves as part of an effort to protect a culture seen as under attack. Federal wolf recovery joins the laundry list of Western rural grievances against what is a seen as an over-reaching federal government killing traditional jobs in mining and logging while seeking to restrict gun rights and curtail a culture of independence.

Wolf patrons lament the idea of labeling the predators as recovered, a pivotal moment that would relinquish wolf management to the states. Western states want year-round wolf hunting and want to remove federal government from often competing tasks that sees one agency introducing wolves, another leasing pubic land to ranchers and a third killing wolves that prey on livestock.

During the West’s ongoing political battles over wolves, scientists and researchers are watching the wolf populations in the Northern Rockies. They note how the return of the region’s top predator has triggered an unanticipated type of chain reaction called a “trophic cascade.” The decline of elk herds means they are eating less willows, which provides more food for beavers. Wolves have reduced coyote populations by half in Yellowstone, prompting a resurgence of rodents, which thrills raptors like owls and hawks and predators like weasels and foxes. Researchers have churned out paper after paper noting the ecological rebound that followed the reintroduction of wolves. But the science has mattered little on the political battlefield, where wolves carom between winning and losing.

Blakeslee expertly weaves dense political maneuvering and scientific revelations with operatic glimpses of O-Six and her brood. By the time she birthed her third litter in the spring of 2012, hundreds were watching her every move. And every O-Six fan was praying she didn’t leave the park, where wolf hunters were on the prowl.

After that unnamed hunter killed O-Six outside the park boundary in December 2012, the national debate over wolves turned. When the Department of Fish and Widlife in 2013 proposed removing wolves from endangered species protection throughout most of the Lower 48, the agency fielded more than one million comments, more than any animal in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

Blakeslee somehow found the hunter who killed O-Six. Even more impressive: he convinced the hunter to talk. The hunter had never gone public on his legal shooting of O-Six. Blakeslee promised to keep him anonymous, especially after the hunter told him: “I found her and I can find you too.”

The hunter was pleasant and open, sharing his ethical and intellectual pursuit of hunting. He told Blakeslee he felt besieged after shooting O-Six, a shot heard round the country — thanks to an obit in the New York Times — that called millions to mourning.

“She didn’t tell me she was famous before I shot her,” he told Blakeslee, showing the writer the enormous gray wolf skin he kept in his cabin.

But he knew she was special within seconds of pulling the trigger.

As O-Six lay in the snow, breathing her last, her pack gathered around and unleashed a communal howl that rattled even the lifelong hunter who shared no love for wolves.

“It was sad,” he said. “I’m a hunter, but I’ll admit that.”

Nate Blakeslee will discuss “American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West” on Dec. 14 at the Tattered Cover Book Store on Colfax Ave. He will be chatting with Mike Phillips,the executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund and an expert on wolf restoration in an event sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Endangered Species Coalition, Rocky Mountain Wild and the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center.

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