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Northwest Passages Book Club: ‘American Wolf’ author tracks a famous leader of the pack

When Nate Blakeslee took a wolf-watching class at Yellowstone National Park, he saw wolves roaming the wild for the first time. And he was hooked.

The wolves’ surprisingly intricate social community fascinated him. As did their power over those who revere and fear them.

“They are more like us than they first appear to be,” he said, “And this makes their struggles seem both familiar and timeless.”

A decade later, Blakeslee finished writing “American Wolf,” a narrative that explores the polarizing political and environmental fights over the reintroduction of wolves in the West.

On Dec. 6, Blakeslee comes to Spokane for a community forum with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club. In an interview ahead of his visit, the Texas journalist and author discusses his research, the current state of wolves in the West and the alpha female wolf at the heart of his story.

Q. You made a wolf, known as O-Six, the main character in your book. Why?

A. I read many books on wolves in preparation for this project, some of which were classics that I would happily read again. But I never read one that tried to tell the story from the perspective of a wolf, a sort of nonfiction novel in which the main characters are animals. The obstacles to that approach are obvious, yet in this instance it was possible simply because the wolf I chose to profile – Yellowstone’s O-Six – was so famous.

She had been viewed by hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park over the years, but she had also been very carefully tracked by a much smaller group of die-hard wolf aficionados, two of whom had kept meticulous daily notes on everything they saw. The notes read like the diary of a wolf pack, filled with amazing scenes, described in considerable detail, which I was able to further flesh out with interviews of those who happened to be present. Some of the scenes were exciting – hunting elk, defending the den from grizzlies, battling rival packs – and others – especially those involving caring for the pups at the den, or the love triangle between O-Six, her mate, and her mate’s brother – heartbreakingly tender.

Q. Your book is set in Yellowstone, and the story also addresses larger issues about the controversial re-introduction of wolves in the past 20 years. How has that battle changed over time?

A. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone after having been completely trapped and hunted out by the 1920s, as they had been across most of the lower 48 states. The decision was controversial. The descendants of the same ranching families that had killed off the last wolves were still in the area surrounding the park, and they feared losing stock if the wolves were brought back. Elk hunting is also big business in the northern Rockies, and wolves eat a lot of elk, so there was resistance from hunting guides, owners of motels and restaurants that cater to hunters, and of course from hunters themselves.

Twenty years on, the program has been immensely successful, and wolves have now spread throughout the northern Rockies, not just Yellowstone itself. The return of wolves has not had a significant impact on ranching or elk hunting on a regional basis, though in certain areas ranchers and hunters have suffered. Ranchers in this area were already accustomed to dealing with predators, and they have gradually accommodated themselves to the presence of wolves. Elk hunters and their various associations are still very much anti-wolf.

Q. What’s the current status of wolves in Yellowstone and surrounding states?

A. After a lengthy battle in Congress and in the courts, wolf hunting and trapping is now legal in all three states (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) bordering Yellowstone. Wolves are still protected as long as they remain in the park, though because of their enormous ranges most of the park’s packs roam outside the borders regularly. Park wolves, including some that have worn tracking collars for years and are very valuable as research subjects, are killed every fall. The debate now is over whether wolves should be removed from federal protection in the rest of the lower 48 states, so that they can be hunted as they disperse from the northern Rockies, which has begun happening in recent years – including to Washington.

Q. One offbeat aspect of “American Wolf” is the hardcore wolf tourists, the people who show up every day to watch the wolves. What motivates them?

A. Wolves have a powerful constituency behind them, one that has grown along with the popularity of wolf-watching in Yellowstone. The park is the one place in the world where wolves can reliably be seen through a spotting scope from the roadside, and a new kind of tourist industry has grown up around watching them.

For some people, one visit just isn’t enough. There is a kind of subculture in the park of wolf aficionados, complete with its own lexicon – a kind of shorthand they use on their handheld radios to keep tabs on the wolves. It was a fascinating phenomenon to witness, though perhaps difficult for some park visitors to understand. We live in a time when species are disappearing from the planet at a faster rate than any period since the demise of the dinosaurs. Most of what we do to combat this feels like the proverbial finger in the dam. But wolf reintroduction was a grand, landscape-scale gesture, and it was immensely successful – transforming the ecosystem in ways we are only now starting to understand. People get excited when they see wolves running free in Yellowstone, and for some people that excitement never goes away.

Q. The subtitle of your book mentions the word “obsession” and that’s a reoccurring theme among the characters you introduce. Who are the main players in this drama?

A. The book closely follows the rise of O-Six and her pack in a part of Yellowstone known as the Lamar Valley, which is the most popular wolf-watching area. At the same time, the book tracks the debate over wolf hunting, which is coming to a head during this period, so of course there are human characters, too. Chief among them is Rick McIntyre, a park ranger who is known as Yellowstone’s wolf guru, someone who is so obsessed with wolves he didn’t miss a day in the park – whether he was on the clock or off duty – for 15 years straight. There is also a hunter – of both elk and wolves – who agreed to participate as long as I didn’t use his real name. Obviously it was important to get his perspective in the book, as well as that of the ranching community in the northern Rockies, so that readers would fully understand where every side in the debate was coming from.

Q. What’s your current obsession?

A. All things Spokane! I’ve never visited Washington, and I’m looking forward to the book tour bringing me there.

Q. How long did you spend researching and writing this book? What surprised you most?

A. I worked on the book for a little less than three years. Most of the reporting was done in Yellowstone, which was wonderful. I didn’t realize at the outset of the project how close some watchers felt to the wolves, how they became almost like family, even though they were miles away most of the time. Despite the distance, the spotting scopes the watchers use are so powerful that you do get a sense of intimacy; you can literally see the expressions on the wolves’ faces. Of course, you can’t hear them, so it’s like watching a silent movie. But then one of them will howl, which you can hear no matter how far away you are. It’s a sound unlike anything else under the sun, and that experience alone is worth the trip to Yellowstone.

Q. Has writing “American Wolf” changed your own views about wolves in the wild?

A. I don’t think I fully appreciated how political wildlife management really is. We think of it as a science-driven endeavor, and it is, but only up to a point. We tend to imagine wilderness as something akin to the opposite of civilization. There is the natural world, and then there is the world we have created for ourselves. But in a place as thoroughly exploited as the American West (timber, coal, fur, gold, etc.), wilderness is something that has to be created, too, or re-created. And not everybody agrees on what an ideal wilderness should look like, which species to leave in and which to leave out.

Q. What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to research one of your stories?

A. I am a flatlander from Austin, where it seldom snows. In order to track down somebody for this book, I drove over a mountain pass in a rented Subaru in falling light and a form of precipitation that we do not have here, but which I would describe as ice fog. The road was white, the lanes were narrow and curvy, and I was trying to remember any prayers I may have accidentally learned as a kid.

Q. Your last book, “Tulia,” was about wrongful convictions. What made you shift gears and head to the wilderness?

A. They are similar projects in one sense. Both books pull the curtain back on how policymaking happens in our country. Whether it’s the drug war, which I examined in “Tulia,” or wildlife management, the subject of my new book, once you see how the sausage gets made, you start to think about the subject differently. Beyond that, both books are character and narrative based – they tell a good story, rather than asking the reader to wade through a book-length essay.

Q. What’s your next project?

A. I’ve been doing magazine journalism for most of my career, mainly at the Texas Observer and the Texas Monthly. Back to the salt mines!

Donna Wares is a senior editor at The Spokesman-Review and runs the Northwest Passages Book Club, a community forum featuring live events. You can reach her at donnaw@spokesman.com.


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