Werewolf Be Damned: The True Story of the American Wolf

Photo courtesy of Doug McLaughlin

The ancient Romans believed that the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who had been abandoned at birth, had been suckled and raised by a she-wolf. Consequently, a temple – the Lupercal – was built on the site of the wolf’s cave. In February, the Lupercalia, a religious festival of purification, was held for days at a time, with priests known as “Brothers of the Wolf,” the Luperci, as its chief celebrants.

For the people of Chechnya, the Borz, or gray wolf, is their national animal. The person who possesses the qualities of wolves is highly regarded in Chechen society.

In the United States, however, most references to wolves in our fairy tales, fables, and folklore refer to wolves as murderous animals that hunt human beings and destroy livestock. We tell our children the story of the Big Bad Wolf who blew down the homes of the Three Little Pigs; Red Riding Hood’s grandmother was eaten by a wolf who then tried to eat the little girl; and films and stories abound of people alone in the woods who are stalked and killed by single wolves or murderous packs. In one of our most frightening stories, a man bitten by a wolf transmogrifies into a werewolf on the nights of the full moon. And even now, we refer to some of our most heinous killers as “lone wolves,” as if a single wolf might be motivated to kill dozens of people at one time.

Despite these stories, in the past 100 years a grand total of eight people have been killed by wolves in the wild, and two of those died of rabies from non-fatal bites. To put that tiny number in context, consider this fact: In 2012, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs, while 486 people died from dog attacks. As a nation, we love our dogs so much that Americans spent $62.75 billion on dogs in 2016. But one of the most hated animals in America is so close to domestic dogs that they are capable of interbreeding with dogs and producing non-sterile offspring.

If the fear of wolves was limited to the stories we tell about them, American history may have turned out differently. Instead, the fear of wolves, based on irrational notions of what wolves are capable of and the danger they present to us, has led to some of Americans’ most cruel actions against other species. Beginning in the seventeenth century, when white European settlers landed, the policy toward wolves has not been peaceful co-habitation, but rather attempts to eradicate the wolf from the landscape. John James Audubon, once thought of as simply the person who catalogued and painted a vast number of American birds, gleefully participated in one farmer’s attempt to kill every wolf in his area with a series of traps and bait. In the west, bounties were paid on each wolf pelt that was brought in, and farmers and ranchers who couldn’t be bothered to hunt the animals laid strychnine-laced bait on acres of land, allowing the wolves to die agonizing deaths. Even Teddy Roosevelt, the president remembered as the friend of the environment who declared areas of the United States as national parks for all to enjoy, helped institute a federal government policy to remove each and every wolf from the American continent.

By the 1970s, few wolves were left, and in 1973 the government added the wolf to the Endangered Species Act. It was met with opposition from ranchers and farmers in the western United States, who saw the government providing protection to an animal that ranchers claimed raided their livestock. Despite the fact that ranchers are reimbursed for each and every animal that is taken by wolves, ranchers are infamous for their hatred of wolves. When I was growing up in the west, any time an animal was considered for addition to the Endangered Species Act, it became a reflex action that people who became convinced that the animal’s protection would interfere with their economic livelihoods would do whatever they could, legally or not, to prevent the government from protecting the animals.

This is all background for Nate Blakeslee’s scrupulously researched, balanced account of the reintroduction of wolves to areas of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. The focus of the book is on the wolf packs of Yellowstone National Park, both from the perspective of the park employees who kept daily records of the wolves’ activities, the attorneys and judges who argued over whether the increase in population of wolves warranted removing them from the Endangered Species Act, and from the hunters who saw the wolves as competitors for the elk and antelope that are popular prey with game hunters, some of whom are willing to pay $50,000 for a guided hunt to bag an elk.

Blakeslee provides encyclopedic details regarding the life cycles of the wolves, mostly thanks to the daily observations by Yellowstone employees such as Rick McIntyre, who on December 12, 2009, was on his 3,467th day in a row looking for wolves in the park. Blakeslee shadowed McIntyre for years. Through McIntyre and his colleagues work, Blakeslee is able to tell the history of the various packs of wolves who live in Yellowstone, and in some cases, to document an entire history of the formation of a wolf pack through to the dissolution of the pack due to death, disease, or competition with other packs.

But Blakeslee does not spend all of his time just in the company of McIntyre. Determined to present the entire story of wolves in the Rockies, the author also spends time with people whose hatred of wolves has led them to also devote their lives to the animal. Contrarily, though, their devotion is to the eradication of the wolf. Some of the most vehement of these wolf opponents are documented in their testimony before judges, as Idaho and Montana officials fight to remove the wolves from the protection of the ESA, based on the rapid breeding of the wolves that takes place in Yellowstone. Their arguments against the wolves are centered on the wolves’ threat to human activity. Wolves are known to take down livestock, and for ranchers the only recourse is seeking monetary compensation. As long as the wolves are listed on the ESA, they can’t be hunted, so for the ranchers, the reintroduction of the wolves feels like federal overreach in “imposing” the wolf upon them.

Blakeslee also introduces the reader to hunters like Steven Turnbull. Turnbull considers himself a lover of the environment, but for him, the wolf presents unfair competition for the elk that Turnbull hunts and butchers for his family’s sustenance. Blakeslee is able to show that prior to the wolf coming back to Yellowstone, the elk and antelope in the area had gotten used to life without a keystone predator in the area. Wolves killed the elk who were slow to adapt to a new normal, and as a consequence, the elk that Turnbull hunt have now become much harder to hunt and kill because they’ve become so much more wary of predators.

It is Blakeslee’s skill as a journalist that allows readers to understand the different perspectives on wolves, and to have certain levels of sympathy for each. Readers who have a genuine interest in learning more about an animal that was once the primary predator for much of the American continent could not find a more complete account than American Wolf. It should be required reading for all politicians who make decisions regarding wolves based on mythology and emotion, rather than a cool rational evaluation of the place of wolves within our ecostructure. That education cannot come too soon. Right now, Senate Bill 164, co-sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats, seeks to permanently remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act. This book may provide voters with information they need to make a decision on whether such a bill is a thoughtful way to respond to the presence of wolves among us.