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American Wolf

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

Nate Blakeslee
Crown
2017
320 pp.
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Once, while I was watching a wolf with a group of students along a roadside in Yellowstone National Park, a National Park Service Toyota pulled up and one of the most famous wolf watchers stepped out, radio antennae in hand. As we gathered around, Rick McIntyre, a “wolf interpreter” at Yellowstone since 1994, pulled out a camp chair and proceeded to tell us the story of the wolf in view, “755”; his brother, “754”; their mate, “06”; and long-time alpha male “21.”

McIntyre features prominently in American Wolf, Nate Blakeslee’s engaging new book about Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley wolf pack, as do the wolves he told us about that day. Blakeslee traces the interpreter’s long career observing wolves and uses it to weave the story of the wolf pack’s survival in a harsh landscape, with anecdotes about researchers, park managers, community members, and volunteer wolf observers. Recalling McIntyre’s early years at Yellowstone, for example, Blakeslee describes the tension that existed in nearby communities, many of whom were skeptical of the wolves’ reintroduction to the park. “Over time he [Rick] came to know which gas stations, restaurants, motels, and curio shops were run by pro-wolf proprietors, and which were anti-wolf. … In some cases, entire communities were considered to be on one side or the other.”

In 1995, after years of negotiation, 15 Canadian wolves were captured and released in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. Lamar quickly became a mecca for citizen scientists and professional wolf watchers as roadside viewings of wolves in the valley became daily occurrences. The general public watched side by side with scientists as the wolves claimed territories, raised young, and established new packs. Numbers became legends, and invoking “21” or “06,” for example, would bring knowing looks among veteran wolf watchers.

THOMAS WEBER/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A wolf peers through the trees in in Yellowstone National Park.

American Wolf provides a glimpse into the social fabric of the wolves themselves. Recalling the moment when 755 and 754 left their own pack to join 06, for example, Blakeslee writes, “Instead of squatting, she raised her leg to scent-mark a tree, then scratched the earth nearby, lest her sign be missed somehow. It was the mark of an alpha female, and its message was unmistakable: This land is mine.”

Although focused on the stories of specific wolves, American Wolf also introduces readers more generally to the tensions that can arise when predators coexist with ranchers, livestock, hunters, and tourists. During the court battles that began soon after the wolves’ reintroduction, which sought to determine whether to allow wolf hunting around Yellowstone, a vibrant tourism industry developed around observing them. Blakeslee effectively captures the conflicts that occurred between those who believed that “overreaching bureaucrats in Washington had rammed wolves down their throats” and the scientists and other observers captivated by these creatures.

American Wolf is a must read for researchers, citizen scientists, and visitors to Yellowstone, where the story of the wolves continues to evolve. With nuance and careful reporting, Blakeslee blends citizen science with research data and with politics to provide a balanced and insightful view of one of the country’s most controversial predator reintroductions.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.