Wolves have roamed the wild for centuries, living off the land they inhabit. They are complex and intelligent creatures, with a deep understanding of their surroundings. Though they were once abundant in North America, these magnificent animals were hunted to near extinction by the 1920s. However, in recent decades, wolves have been increasing in numbers due to their protection as an endangered species. The jump in the wolf population has left people divided, especially in the West.
Nate Blakeslee, author of American Wolf, wanted to write about wolves in their entirety, and explore the controversy that surrounds them. He did this by creating an intimate portrait of O-Six – a celebrated, alpha female Yellowstone wolf – from the time of her birth, onward.
We had the chance to speak with Nate Blakeslee, the mastermind who tells the gripping story of O-Six in a way that hasn’t been done before. Read on to learn more about Blakeslee’s inspiration for the book, his opinions on hunting, the endangered species list, and more.
SIGNATURE: You live with your family in Austin, Texas. How did you come to write American Wolf, a story about Yellowstone?
NATE BLAKESLEE: I was born and raised in Texas, but I spent a lot of time in the Northern Rockies when I was in my early twenties, working summer jobs in Jackson, Wyoming, with friends from college. It was one of the happiest times in my life, and I’ve looked for a reason to get back there every summer since. In 2007, I took a wolf-watching class in Yellowstone, where I met Rick McIntyre, the park’s wolf guru. I knew I wanted to write about wolves and the controversy that surrounded them, but wasn’t sure how to do it until I heard the story of O-Six.
SIG: American Wolf isn’t just about Yellowstone wolves and their struggles; it’s also about the political fights that invisibly shape these wolves’ lives. Can you describe the forces at play during the events of this book? How have those forces changed since then?
NB: Ranchers and hunting guides stood to lose the most if wolves were brought back to the Northern Rockies, and they fought the reintroduction plan for years. Later they lobbied to remove wolves from the endangered species list as quickly as possible, so that their numbers could be reduced through hunting and trapping. Wolves have a powerful constituency, too, which has grown as wolf-watching in Yellowstone has become a key part of the tourist economy in the region. Today wolves are hunted in all three states that surround Yellowstone – Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Wolves inside Yellowstone National Park are still protected, though most packs roam across the park’s borders, which means Yellowstone wolves are frequently lost to hunting and trapping.
SIG: You say in the book that wolves have become deeply polarizing in the West – on par with abortion or gun control or war in the Middle East. Everyone seems to have an opinion. What’s at stake for people when it comes to wolf reintroduction? Why is it such a hotly contested issue? Will we ever reach consensus?
NB: Greater Yellowstone is the world’s largest remaining essentially intact temperate ecosystem, but it was not complete until the return of the wolf. We tend to think of wilderness as the opposite of civilization – there is the natural world, and then there is the world we have made for ourselves. But in a place as thoroughly exploited as the American West, wilderness is something that has to be created, too. Decisions about how best to restore a landscape – what to include and what to leave out – are political decisions, and there are always winners and losers just as there are in any other arena of policymaking.
SIG: What do people like Steven Turnbull and the other anti-wolf characters in the book reveal about America today? What are their grievances, and how does this shed light on the bigger divisions in our country?
NB: The debate over how best to manage wolves is part and parcel of a larger and much older contest – the question of how public land in the West should be used, and who should get to decide. Much of the Northern Rockies, like the West in general, is national forest or other public land, which means that even those of us who don’t live in the area have a say over how it is managed. The rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s threatened the traditional uses of that land – such as logging, mining, and hunting – and that in turn has engendered resentment against the federal government. In many ways it is a cultural division, though the politics at play are more complex than they first appear.
SIG: What are your own views on hunting?
NB: Central Texas, where I live, is overrun with far too many white-tailed deer – a consequence of aggressive predator control by many generations of ranchers. If it weren’t for the thousands of hunters who visit every fall, the repercussions (disease, starvation, habitat damage) would be much worse. Having said that, I recognize that the “Texas model” of hunting – shooting deer from a blind as they feed on corn you have put out for them, or paying big money to hunt selectively bred trophy deer behind a high fence – is anathema to elk-hunting aficionados in the Rockies (not to mention many of my fellow Texans).
SIG: Obsession is an animating theme in the book – everyone is “on the hunt” in some way. What is it about these wolves, and the American West, that courts such fascination?
NB: We live in an era when species are disappearing from the earth at a faster rate than any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Most of what we do to counter that slowly unfolding disaster feels like a finger in the dam. Wolf reintroduction, by contrast, was a grand gesture, the kind of large-scale intervention that could only have been done in the West, home to our nation’s largest remaining tracts of wilderness. For many people, wolves are iconic – symbols of what was lost when the West was tamed, and harbingers of a hoped-for restoration of one of the world’s last great wildernesses. Of course, for the descendants of the people who eliminated wolves from the West, they represent something else entirely.
SIG: At its core, American Wolf depicts a war of American ideals. Some characters embody a ruggedly masculine brand of independence – a drive to conquer an untamed landscape. And there are other characters championing conservation, an American tradition that dates back to the 19th century. How do these two ideals complement one another? How are they at odds?
NB: Hunters in the Rockies would reject the notion that a Westerner has to fall in one camp or the other. Elk-hunting associations have devoted considerable resources to preserving habitat for their favorite animal, ensuring the long-term viability of the herds and benefitting other species as well. Likewise, many wolf advocates, including Yellowstone biologists, hunt elk every fall. Still, wolf reintroduction posits a classic clash of values. Wolves – and, more broadly, balanced ecosystems – are not “useful” in the same sense as a herd of elk that provides a living for a hunting guide, or a parcel of national forest that is leased for cattle grazing.
SIG: How does O-Six, the compelling female alpha who anchors the story, fit in with our archetypes of self-made, charismatic American heroes?
NB: Any wolf’s life would make a wonderful adventure story, if we only knew the details of her day-to-day existence. Ordinarily we wouldn’t, and that’s what made O-Six’s story so intriguing to me: it’s the saga of a wild animal whose life was as carefully observed and documented as an animal in a zoo. Her story is undeniably dramatic, but there is something else appealing about wolves as characters – the complexity of their social interactions sets them apart in the animal world. They are more like us than they first appear to be, and this makes their struggles seem both familiar and timeless.
SIG: What was the biggest challenge in reporting this book? Was everyone willing to participate, or did you meet some resistance?
NB: The broad outlines of O-Six’s life were widely available, but I wanted to tell her story as though she were a character in a novel, which could only be done by culling details from the thousands of pages of notes taken by Yellowstone’s small cadre of hyper dedicated wolf-watchers. Turning those notes over to a relative stranger – with no control over how they would be used – was an act of trust for which I am very grateful. I also wanted to make sure I included the perspective of a hunter, so that readers could understand the issue in all its complexity. After the worldwide backlash against the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most celebrated lion, this was a fraught request. Again, I relied on trust – in this case that his story would be relayed with dignity and respect.
SIG: Every character in American Wolf is, in some way, fighting to survive and to protect their way of life. Which way of life do you think will win out? How do those fights fit into our current political climate?
NB: In the twenty years since reintroduction, ranchers have gradually accommodated themselves to the idea that wolves are back to stay, though most would like to see fewer of them. Losses to wolves, while significant on a few ranches close to the core reintroduction areas, have not had a major impact on the livestock industry in the Northern Rockies as a whole. Likewise elk numbers are down in a few areas, but the overall health of the hunting business is good. Still, state politicians are determined to drive wolf numbers lower through long hunting and trapping seasons; opposing wolves – and, by proxy, federal government overreach – has become good politics. Wolf advocates, meanwhile, have not given up hope on returning wolves to the endangered species list, and we can expect more lawsuits in the years to come.
SIG: Land use battles in the West have been well publicized – and everyone in your book (including the wolves) is fighting over territory and over the right to say what that land is for. What is the role of nature in our lives? Should we bend the natural environment to meet our needs, or is our job as stewards to maintain as small an imprint as possible?
NB: Most public land in the West is still managed with resource extraction as the preeminent goal, though it does seem like we are headed, however gradually, toward a new paradigm. Some traditional uses – grazing cattle in the national forests, for example – look increasingly anachronistic in an era when restoring ecosystems has become a paramount goal for agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The national parks, meanwhile, have never been more popular, as more and more families choose to spend their holidays outdoors. The future of this struggle may depend in part on whether newcomers to the northern Rockies (still one of the least populated regions of the country) bring with them a new conservation ethic – one centered on eco-tourism, for example, rather than hunting – and how long it takes that change to be reflected in the officials they send to Washington.