Title: American Wolf
Author: Nate Blakeslee
Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Before men ruled the Earth, there were wolves. Once abundant in North America, these majestic creatures were hunted to near extinction 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, a charismatic alpha female named O-Six 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 Yellowstone park ranger Rick McIntyre, and becomes something of a social media star, with followers around the world.
These forces collide in American Wolf, a riveting multi-generational saga of hardship and triumph that tells a larger story about the clash of values 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.
It's impossible for me to review this book without also talking about my relationships to the wolves. Apologies in advance, because this will likely get lengthy. The wolves of Yellowstone have long been part of my life.
I've been going to Yellowstone since I was 6 months old. Every year or so we'd head across the country and spend weeks hiking, canoeing/kayaking, fishing and animal watching. I remember the first time we saw a grizzly bear, the time we watched a bison charge down the road and barely miss a fisherman, I can look at a picture of a location in Yellowstone and tell you a memory about that place. I spent so much time in Hayden Valley that my parents took to calling it "Kate's Valley" and once I had a daughter we started taking her across as well. I also remember the first time I ever saw a wolf. It was 1996, I was 15 and we were driving through Lamar Valley checking out all our favorite wildlife watching spots. We went fishing down in Slough Creek and it was about dusk. Driving down the road I was looking out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of something, when suddenly there he/she was. High on the rocks, looking down as we drove past. Be the time we had stopped, the wolf had retreated back into the woods and I had been changed forever. I've followed the wolves for the past 20 years, checking in online during the year and planning out our trips to make sure that we were hitting up the most likely spots to see the wolves. We've seen pups playing near Slough Creek, a wolf fend off a bear over a carcass near Mary Mountain, a whole pack come down the hill near Little America and last summer we had probably our most amazing wolf experience. We pulled into a picnic area in Hayden Valley to discuss where we should head next and notices a few cars pulled towards the back, with their passengers out. We followed suit and immediately realized we were in for something amazing. A lone female white wolf was off the back of the picnic area, howling away. For about 15-20 minutes we watched this wolf as she tried to decide where to go. After she finally took off we headed back to the road and eventually saw her join up with two male's across the river. Later that night we went to the wolf presentation at Bridge Bay Campgrounds and learned that we had witnessed the white wolf defecting from her pack and joining up with the two males to start a new pack. In 34 years of visiting the park, that was a first for me.
This book then, was a bit like coming home. A way to visit a place I know like the back of my hand. The book makes reference to a lot of places in the park by name, places that I can picture right away, although I'm not sure a reader who doesn't frequent the park would be able to. Still Blakeslee paints a perfect picture of what the park and the surrounding area is like in regards to wolves. It was particularly interesting to me to get a snapshot of not only the people who advocate for wolves, but also those who are adamantly opposed to their reintroduction. It has been controversial and contentious for years, and that is probably an understatement. Blakeslee manages to present both sides of the debate very well, clearly showing why the wolves were reintroduced and the positive impact they've had, as well as highlighting the reasons that many were opposed. Many times online (and in person) you come across someone who is on one side or the other and because people are so passionate about it, it's hard to have a discussion. You are simply painted as pro-wolf or anti-wolf and the broad strokes of that brush cover up a really complicated issue. As is often the case, neither side is 100% right, it's not that simple and Blakeslee does a masterful job weaving together all the perspectives to create a really well rounded look at the Yellowstone wolves over the past 20+ years.
I loved this book. It made me want to quit my job, pack up and drive until I hit the valley (roughly 3 days of driving), and spend all my time watching animals and talking to other visitors. I found myself wondering if I was in any of the places that were highlighted during the events that were being discussed. Have I met Rick or Laurie? Maybe sat on the hill watching the pups play in the valley with them without even knowing how significant they were to the story of the wolves? Or maybe Rick gave one of the presentations I've attended over the years? Probably. My goal is to someday work in the park as an educator. I've just completed my Cultural Heritage Preservation Degree and there's nothing I want more then to share what I'm passionate about (namely Yellowstone National Park and it's wildlife) with others. Reading this book gave me a glimpse of the people who do just that every day and the wolves that are familiar to me and a bit like family to them.
I can't wait until my next trip out west, to sit in the valley and visit with the wolves.