In “American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West,” Nate Blakeslee provides the history of the trials and triumphs of wolf reintroduction. At its heart, it is a story of the uniqueness of the American West. Blakeslee deftly tells the story of the wolf, which encompasses wildlife, wilderness, hunting, activism, politics, tourism, environmentalism and people.
The last wolves in Yellowstone National Park were killed by park rangers in 1926 as part of a program believed to protect big game animals. Wildlife management, as known today, barely existed at the time, and little was understood about how wolves coexisted with other wildlife and how crucial they were to the park’s ecosystem. It took nearly seven decades before the wolf returned to its natural habitat. When wolves were relocated to Yellowstone in 1995, they were tagged and collared to monitor developments and activities, and the plan also included a stipulation to allow hunting once the population grew enough that the wolf was no longer an endangered species.
Blakeslee captivates the reader by centering on one wolf, O-Six. Her grandmother was of the group brought from Canada and reintroduced into Yellowstone. Through the eyes and documentation of Park Service employees and wolf-watchers, Blakeslee chronicles how wolves live, breed, hunt, mate and claim territory. O-Six, an alpha female, was recognized for her strength, leadership and instincts. She epitomized the majestic qualities wolves possess and was beloved by many.
Delving into the lives of O-Six, her ancestors and her descendants was the most enthralling aspect of the book. Thanks to the daily observations and documentation of park staff and other wolf enthusiasts, Blakeslee’s descriptions make one not just imagine the scenery, but see it. The wolves are not just animals, but communities that have distinct personalities and social practices.
In simple terms, “American Wolf” is about the people who supported and worked for reintroduction, and those who were against it. But like any issue, it is not that straightforward. After generations without predator wolves, reintroduction affected the livelihood of many residents. While some revered the wolf and its part in the wildlife ecosystem, ranchers lost cattle and sheep, and hunters lamented the declining elk population, which some considered a food staple. This conflict eventually rose into the political arena, both in state and national politics. From Montana Sen. John Tester to Gov. Butch Otter to President Barack Obama, politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, advocates and activists engaged in the dispute.
What is intriguing about Blakeslee’s book is that when reaching the end of the book, you know it is not the end of the story. At just over 20 years old, wolf reintroduction is still in its infancy. Those years amply reflect the controversies, triumphs and challenges about the program and its effects. It is not a straightforward story; it is about the compatibility and clash between man and environment, heritage and the future, politics and practice, and seemingly countless nuances that demonstrate the complexity of the West. But most of all, it is about the wolves that transformed Yellowstone life.
Cheryl Oestreicher is head of Special Collections and Archives at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.