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American Wolf

A TRUE STORY OF SURVIVAL AND OBSESSION IN THE WEST
Written by NATE BLAKESLEE
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Publisher: Crown
On Sale: 10/17/2017
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 978-1-101-90278-3
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open close ABOUT THE BOOK
A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE

The enthralling story of the rise and reign of O-Six, the celebrated Yellowstone wolf, and the people who loved or feared her

 
Before men ruled the earth, there were wolves. Once abundant in North America, these majestic creatures were hunted to near extinction in the lower 48 states by the 1920s. But in recent decades, conservationists have brought wolves back to the Rockies, igniting a battle over the very soul of the West.

With novelistic detail, Nate Blakeslee tells the gripping story of one of these wolves, O-Six, a charismatic alpha female named for the year of her birth. Uncommonly powerful, with gray fur and faint black ovals around each eye, O-Six is a kind and merciful leader, a fiercely intelligent fighter, and a doting mother. She is beloved by wolf watchers, particularly renowned naturalist Rick McIntyre, and becomes something of a social media star, with followers around the world.

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 are vying for control of the park’s stunningly beautiful Lamar Valley.

These forces collide in American Wolf, 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.
open close ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nate Blakeslee is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly. His first book, Tulia, won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the Texas Institute of Letters nonfiction prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. The Washington Post called Tulia one of the most important books about wrongful convictions ever written. Blakeslee lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.
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1

Return of the Wolf

The wolves drove an elk down the side of a steep, snow-covered butte under a sky close and gray. There were three wolves. The one in the lead was almost pure white. She was followed closely by her sister, a good-size gray. Several yards back and struggling to keep up was a mature black male, his snout and withers gone silver with age.

The elk had been one of many cows atop the butte; now she was alone, hurtling pell-mell toward the broad valley below, dodging the lichen-covered glacial erratics—some the size of small cabins—that dotted the hillside, leaping over what she could, and exploding straight through the sage and juniper. It was early winter, and the snow was not yet deep, offering the kind of footing that favored the elk. For such an enormous animal—at least five times heavier than any of her pursuers—she was surprisingly fast and nimble. Her chocolate ears laid back against her head, her bouncing, ovoid rump the same shade of buff as the sedge poking up through the snow, she seemed an impossible quarry.

The cow headed for the river, as her kind often did when the wolves came. The deep water offered long-legged animals an advantage: a swimming wolf has no leverage for biting and pulling. Chases often ended in stalemate this way, with an elk standing in hip-deep water, warily eyeing a pack of wolves lounging on the nearby bank as they patiently waited to see if the frigid water would force the elk back onto dry land. The refuge the cow sought was the Lamar River, not far from where it joined the Yellowstone, and on this winter morning it was frozen solid. Perhaps she didn’t know that, or perhaps in her panic she could think of nowhere else to go.

It was only five hundred yards or so from the base of the butte to the river, but once the chase reached level ground, the wolves began to close the gap. The four animals were now in single file, running flat out, pounding the snow into a fine powdery spray, like the dust under a racehorse’s hooves. The contest had become purely a matter of speed, and the canines—the primordial ancestors of the greyhound, unsullied by the inbreeding that stripped away the tiger-muscled shoulders, the massive head, the powerful jaws—ran with a raw and joyous energy that the ungulate could not match.

As the race neared its climax, it was the gray who stood out. Her body seemed to stretch and elongate as the ground swept beneath her. Her legs were long—much longer than a dog’s—and her hips narrow, like a cheetah’s. She held her tail straight out, and her head was a flattened triangle. She was an arrow, and by comparison the elk suddenly seemed not only clumsy but also excessively—sadly, fatally—upright. Every time the cow missed a step, stumbling slightly in a pocket of deep snow, she had less time to recover, until finally there was no time at all.

The wolves pulled her down in a frozen marsh between two icy ponds.

About a quarter of a mile away, a man stood on the side of a road watching the wolves eat. His name was Rick McIntyre, and he worked for the National Park Service. Bundled in a heavy black down coat that extended past his waist, only the familiar forest green of his pants marked him as a park employee. He was in an area of Yellowstone known as Little America, where the Lamar River swept through a series of low hills and rocky knolls in the park’s mountainous Northern Range. Rick was sixty years old, though with his ramrod posture and tall, lean frame, his age was hard to guess, especially with a stocking cap covering his thinning red hair.

He was surveying the scene through a spotting scope, a kind of tripod-mounted telescope used for watching wildlife. Every so often he reached inside his coat and pulled a microcassette recorder from the breast pocket of his uniform and described what he was seeing. Just a few words, economical and to the point. Then the recorder disappeared back into the coat. For the most part, he stood motionless behind his scope, silently watching. It was nine a.m. on December 12, 2009, and it was the 3,467th day in a row that he had spent in the park, looking for wolves. It was getting close to lunchtime for Rick, who had been awake since about four that morning. The wolves were often active at dawn, and he liked to be in place when the landscape first became visible, about a half hour before actual sunrise.

Both the male and the white female in his scope, a mated pair, wore thick leather collars with radio transmitters attached, which was how he’d found them. Every pack in Yellowstone had at least one wolf that had been darted from a helicopter, collared, and assigned a number by the park’s small team of wolf biologists. Each morning Rick drove until the antenna on the roof of his yellow Nissan SUV picked up a wolf’s unique signal, and then he stepped out into the darkness to scan the nearby landscape with his handheld receiver.

As he watched the trio of wolves tugging at the elk carcass, Rick found his eye drawn back to the gray female. She had no collar, which meant she had not been given a number, but she did have a nickname: O-Six, for the year in which she had been born. At this range, his scope revealed every detail; she might as well have been sitting at his feet. She was a wonderful specimen, with a dense coat and a heavier physique than most females, who averaged around ninety pounds.

Not much usually distinguished one black wolf from another, but every gray was different. O-Six had unusually attractive markings—a faint black oval around each eye, offset by twin wedges of white along the bridge of her nose. Her cheeks were also white, and an unbroken streak of gray ran from the tip of her head to the end of her nose, tapering off into buff along the sides of her snout. The overall effect was of a vaguely owl-like mask, which gave her a look of quiet concentration.

She had been born a member of the Agate Creek Pack, in a den about five miles to the south, not far from where Agate Creek spilled into the chossy, sulfurous canyon that held the Yellowstone River. After leaving her pack as a yearling, she had been more or less on the run for the last two years, looking for a mate and a territory of her own.

So far she had been unsuccessful. Rick had observed her mating with five different males the previous winter without settling down with any of them, which was unusual behavior for a lone female. It was also hazardous. Young wolves had to leave their natal packs in order to find a mate, but outside their home territory, alone, they were in constant danger. Almost every part of Yellowstone’s landscape belonged to one pack or another, and the various tribes patrolled their holdings relentlessly. Lone wolves caught trespassing could count on being chased, and entire packs occasionally clashed with one another, especially along the borders of adjoining territories. Territorial conflict was the most common cause of death for the park’s wolves, most of whom didn’t live beyond four or five years. Life for wolves was an adventure, but it was usually not a long one.

At three and a half, O-Six had already reached middle age. Unless she found a mate soon, her prospects for survival were not good. Had she been a male, it might have been different; young males unable to find a mate were sometimes accepted into other packs. Such subordinate males were generally not allowed to breed—only the alpha male had that privilege—but they at least had a chance to take over from an aging alpha one day. Packs usually had just a single breeding female, the alpha, who tended to reject any newcomer who might bear pups of her own. Few lone wolves of either gender ever found what they were seeking: they either returned to their natal pack or died alone far from home.

Yet O-Six had a knack for not getting caught, and her moxie had made her one of Rick’s favorites. In recent months, she’d been tagging along with the collared pair in his scope—one of whom was her older sister and the other an unrelated male—as they hunted the outer reaches of Agate territory, pushing farther and farther north in search of unclaimed habitat.

It was an arrangement unlikely to last. O-Six was an outstanding hunter, which made her an asset to her companions, but there wasn’t much in the deal for her. Once her sister had pups with her new mate in the spring, she would be the alpha female of their new pack. O-Six would have to defer to her in every regard for as long as she remained healthy and fit to breed. Rick couldn’t imagine it. O-Six simply didn’t fit the mold of the beta female, content to wait her turn for a chance to lead and to have pups of her own. She didn’t have the temperament for it.

O-Six’s great-grandmother had been one of the first wolves reintroduced to the park, captured on the plains of western Canada, eight hundred miles to the north, and ferried south by plane and truck in the winter of 1995. By that time, Yellowstone had been essentially devoid of wolves for almost seven decades. Once found in virtually every habitat between the Arctic Circle and present-day Mexico City, gray wolves had been the target of a centuries-long campaign of trapping and poisoning—a war waged both for their valuable pelts and to protect livestock. They were all but eliminated by the 1920s across the vast majority of the Lower 48.

The last wolves believed to have been born in Yellowstone—a pair of pups discovered near Soda Butte Creek, about fifteen miles east of where Rick was now standing—were shot in 1926. They were killed not by poachers, but by park rangers. Almost from the time the park was created, in 1872, early superintendents had pursued a rigorous predator-control program, aimed chiefly at protecting the big game animals—elk, deer, moose, and bighorn sheep—that were considered Yellowstone’s prime attractions. Rangers patrolling on horseback finished the job the trappers had started: finding active dens, destroying the pups, and then trapping or tracking the returning adults so they could be killed as well.

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.

Nor did Yellowstone’s early managers understand what would happen to an ecosystem without predators. Once the wolves were gone, the ungulate population in the park exploded, and the quality of the range quickly began to deteriorate. Overgrazed hillsides eroded, and stream banks denuded of woody shrubs began to crumble, damaging prime trout habitat. Elk browsing at their leisure, undisturbed by predators, decimated stands of young aspen and willow. Too many animals on the landscape brought starvation and disease, and the elk population followed a boom-and-bust cycle.

By the 1930s, Yellowstone officials had no choice but to do what they had done with the wolves. They started quietly culling the park’s enormous elk herds, shooting thousands of animals in an average year (usually in the winter, when few visitors were around to see the carnage). This continued until the 1960s, when hunters in areas adjacent to the park pressured their elected officials to intervene. Fewer elk in Yellowstone, they knew, meant fewer elk migrating out of the park in winter, which in turn meant fewer hunting opportunities. The elk population was once again allowed to grow untrammeled.

The idea that wolves might be the solution to Yellowstone’s problems surfaced as early as 1940, though it wasn’t until the 1970s that the federal government began seriously considering reintroduction. Elected officials in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana (the states surrounding the park) were adamantly opposed to the idea, in deference to two constituencies that exercised an outsize influence on local politics: ranchers and hunters. Ranchers, whose own ancestors had helped rid the mountains of predators in the first place, feared they’d lose livestock once the reintroduced wolves began spreading beyond the park’s boundaries. Elk-hunters, meanwhile, knew the wolves would be subsisting on the same game they cherished—and they’d only just won the fight to keep rangers from reducing elk numbers. From the hunters’ perspective, every elk taken by a wolf was a lost opportunity, and wolves ate a lot of elk.

Hunting was big business in the Northern Rockies—not just for the professional hunting guides who relied on a steady stream of clients to earn a living, but also for the restaurants and motels that hosted the influx of out-of-town hunters who arrived every fall. As an endangered species, wolves would be protected even when they weren’t in Yellowstone, but in order to get the states on board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had made a promise: as soon as the reintroduced wolf population was sufficiently numerous and stable, the wolf would be taken off the endangered species list, and the states could manage their individual populations however they wished. It was understood that this would eventually mean an annual hunting season for wolves. Still, opponents of reintroduction fought literally to the very last minute, delaying the opening of the wolves’ cages as a federal judge considered their final pleadings.

In the end, proponents of reintroduction won, and the wolves were released in the park with great fanfare. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Fish and Wildlife Service director Mollie Beattie personally helped carry the cages the final stretch through the deep January snow to the release point. The Yellowstone wolves were fitted with radio collars and initially set loose into three acclimation pens, each about an acre in size. Project leaders hoped the period of adjustment afforded by the pens would make it less likely that the wolves would take off for home once they were set free. The truth was, nobody really knew what would happen. No one had ever tried this before.
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NOTE TO TEACHERS

Please click on the PDF link at the bottom of this page to download the Teacher's Guide.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

 
1.      According to the author, what is known as “the greatest wildlife conservation success story of the last fifty years” (p. 40) and why was it considered such a success? Who were some of its opponents? Do you agree with their point of view? Why or why not? What larger cultural clash is revealed through the retelling of this “success story” and what does each side feel they are fighting for? Has this clash ultimately been resolved?
 
2.      Who does Rick McIntyre consider to be the “face of the reintroduction” (p. 25) and “American royalty like the Kennedys” (p. 45)? What makes him see the group in this light? What ultimately becomes of this group and what does their story reveal about the lives of wolves and the fate of wolf packs? What larger story is Blakeslee able to tell through an exploration of the story of this particular pack?
 
3.      Who is O-Six and why do so many people seem to be interested in her particularly? What distinguishes her from the other wolves? Why do you think that she becomes a “famous” wolf? How does she achieve this fame? How is she regarded by her own pack and by her peers? What evidence do we have for this? How do we, as readers, become invested in O-Six’s story? What makes her such a compelling figure on the page? 
 
4.      What does the book reveal about the role of politics in the delisting or relisting of wolves on the endangered species list? What larger significance does this controversial issue play within American politics? Did this surprise you? How, for example, did the question of whether wolves should be protected or hunted impact a crucial senate race in recent history? What does the author suggest “the real struggle” is actually about and how does the Sagebrush Rebellion help to illuminate this? Is the listing or delisting of wolves ultimately determined by science or by politics? Explain. What are some of the implied dangers of politicians making these decisions?
 
5.      Although American Wolf is a work of nonfiction, the book possesses many qualities of a novel, including, in many cases, a treatment of the wolves as “characters” with their own individual narratives. How does the author create this sense of animal as protagonist? How do you think that this rendering affects the way readers respond to their story and the controversial issues contained therein? How did this characterization affect your own view of the story?
 
6.      Alternatively, the book reveals that many biologists feel that anthropomorphizing wolves and other animals is “a cardinal sin” (p. 139)—why? Do you agree with them? What would be some of the dangers inherent in assigning human qualities to animals as we study them and seek to understand them?  
 
7.      Discuss the theme of survival. What does the book reveal about survival both for the animals of Yellowstone and for ranchers, guides, hunters, and other people who have made their life in the West? Does the book reveal what traits or skills are necessary in order to survive? What can threaten survival for both animals and humans and how can this be overcome? Are we more sympathetic to the actions of others if they are undertaken in self-defense? In other words, does survival play a role in what we consider ethical?
 
8.      Evaluate the motif of conflict. What do the various conflicts illustrated in the book reveal about what causes tension between two or more groups? How does the book illuminate how we respond to conflicts and how we choose where to lend our empathy or support? How did you respond to the various animal conflicts versus the human conflicts, for instance? Who did you find yourself siding with, and why? Did your stance ever change as the story progressed?
 
9.      What is a “trophic cascade”? What did observers learn about the impact of wolves on their environment when wolves were protected for a period of time? How does the presence of wolves impact other species of both plants and animals? Why, for instance, does an increase in wolves also result in an increase in beavers? Alternatively, how did an absence of wolves affect the evolution and the surrounding environment? According to Blakeslee’s accounts, what role did these facts play in determinations of whether wolves should be hunted or protected?
 
10.  What does Rick observe about the wolf 21 that is considered unusual in the animal world? What does Rick think is the single most important trait for an “alpha” to have and why does he consider it an “evolutionary imperative” for them (p. 44)? Do you agree that each of the alphas represented in the book possesses this quality? How important would you say that this same quality is in humans—particularly leaders? Would you say that it is an imperative by nature as it is for wolves?
 
11.  What is the “phenomenon that Rick had encountered many times” (p. 56)? Is “gameness” a good quality for wolves in general—what about wolves in Yellowstone? Which of the wolves in the story seem to possess this “gameness” and do they seem to be well served by or betrayed by this trait?
 
12.  Who do you think the “Killers” is referencing in the title of Chapter 4? Consider how the book creates a dialogue around those who kill and those who are killed. With whom do you sympathize? How does the book create a dialogue about what is “instinctual” and what is human or animal “nature”? How would you characterize the author’s overall treatment of the subject of death?
 
13.  How do the local hunters feel about the wolves in and around Yellowstone? Why do some of the hunters in the book choose to hunt, and what rationale do they provide for the choice of animals they hunt? What ethical questions arise within the hunting community? What is fair chase hunting? Do all of the hunters in the book abide by it?
 
14.  The book draws attention to the abundance of world myths with wolves at their center. What are some of the popular stories and myths about wolves with which you are familiar? How are the wolves depicted in these stories? Are they cast in a mostly positive or negative light? Is this still how wolves are perceived today or would you say that our views of wolves have evolved over time? Discuss.
 
15.  Why do you think the author chose to bookend his story with Steven Turnbull? Were you surprised by Turnbull’s action at the end of the story? Does he seem to feel any remorse for what he did? Why or why not? How do others react to what he has done? When the author spends time with Turnbull, how does it affect his view of Turnbull and what Turnbull has done? Would you say that Turnbull is a figure who elicits sympathy? Why or why not? How did you feel after reading the Epilogue? Did any of your own views change after reading about the meeting of Turnbull and the author?
 
16.  What was Rick McIntyre’s dream? Would you say that he achieved it? What impact did Rick’s work have upon the Yellowstone community—and communities beyond Yellowstone? What story does Rick tell at the gathering to celebrate his career and what does he feel this story is about? Why does he consider the story a romance? What question does he feel this story should invite about wolves and what does Rick believe is the answer to this question?
 
17.  American Wolf incorporates many characters and many different points of view, often in conflict with one another. Would you say that Blakeslee was neutral in his telling of these stories or do you feel that he was more loyal to one character or point of view in particular?
 
18.  What does Blakeslee’s book reveal about the art of storytelling? What makes a “good” story and where do we find evidence of this in the tales of O-Six and other inhabitants of the American West? Although many of the main characters of American Wolf are animals, what common themes, plots, and devices from world literature do we find in the stories found in Blakeslee’s book? What does the author say is ultimately “as good a reason as any” (p. 269) for telling a story?
 
 
ABOUT THIS GUIDE'S WRITER

Je Banach is a senior member of the Resident Faculty in Fiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. She has written for PEN, Vogue, ELLE, Esquire, Granta, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and other venues and was a long-time contributor to Harold Bloom’s literary series. She is the author of more than sixty literary guides, including guides to works by Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Haruki Murakami, and many others.
 
 

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