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13 January 2018

The Wolf is a profound account detailing the return of the world’s most enduring carnivore

Nate Blakeslee’s book is as much a report on the deep divisions within contemporary America as it is a tale about wolves.

By Mark Cocker

The author of this deeply informed yet fast-paced and deftly structured book suggests that in the long, blood-soaked story of wolves and humans, the rise of agriculture was decisive. About 12,000 years ago, the world’s most successful terrestrial mammal became the enemy-in-chief to the second most widespread. By day, wolves threatened our livestock. By night, they haunted our nightmares. There could really be only a single outcome.

It has entailed the relentless extermination of one by the other, yet the largest single loss of territory in the shortest possible time has to be the grey wolf’s extirpation from almost all of the lower 48 states of the United States. In barely three centuries, wolves were cleared from three million square miles, with a surviving relic population only in a forested belt from Michigan to Minnesota.

The most shocking part of the process occurred in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, whose vast areas of montane forest were not only perfect for wolves but had enjoyed protection since 1872 as the world’s oldest national park. Here at least, one might imagine, the eerie nocturnal music of the Canis lupus might be tolerated. But in 1926, Yellowstone also fell silent. The irony was that the killing was done not by ranchers, hunters or fur trappers but by the very people tasked with defending Yellowstone’s pristine character – the park rangers.

It is a measure of the volte-face that conservationists have since performed on the issue of the wolf’s essential place in America’s wilderness that in 1995 they began to work towards the species’s return. That this was then met – and continues to be met – by opposition from almost every other rural constituency is an index of how little has changed in matters of wolves and men.

Nate Blakeslee’s tale of the Yellowstone reintroduction is an account of three types of unremitting hunter. First, there are the wolves, and it is remarkable to observe how quickly they took to the park, as well as its long inflated elk herds. Within a short time, there were 1,700 wolves spread across the three neighbouring states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. 

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One striking aspect of the rise of this top predator was the way that almost every­thing changed. True, the elk (the same species as British red deer) were brought to within more healthy population limits, but pronghorn antelopes increased, as did grizzly bears. The elk losses led to reductions in grazing pressure and, thus, a rapid expansion of riverine woodland.

This then brought more beavers, which triggered improvements to all the river systems. There was also a massive reduction in the wolf’s competitor the coyote, which led to a big expansion of rodent populations and then, in turn, more owls, hawks, foxes, weasels, and so on. In short, the entire ecosystem has been rebooted and Yellowstone has flourished like never before.

Another kind of hunter that has increased with the rise of the wolves is the human devotee who watches them. These obsessive naturalists, armed with cameras and spotting telescopes, seem to spend almost every waking hour either studying lupine behaviour or logging it on personal blogs and Facebook pages. It is they as much as the wolves who are the stars of Blakeslee’s story, especially a ranger called Rick McIntyre.

He has spent more time in the company of wild wolf packs than any other human on Earth. McIntyre now almost never leaves the park and, over an intensive three-year period, saw wolves every day on 891 consecutive occasions. His diaries of these encounters run to five million words, and it is part of Blakeslee’s achievement to have encouraged this lone wolf among men to share his experiences so freely.

Alas, McIntyre’s form of wolf obsession has it counterpart in a more conventional kind of hunter, whose lead representative passes by the pseudonym Steven Turnbull. Turnbull bears a profound grudge against wolves and those who have championed their return for detracting from the pleasure of shooting surplus elk numbers. He has his revenge when he legally slaughters an alpha female called O-Six, which was described by a New York Times correspondent as the world’s most famous wolf.

It is a mark of the narrator’s skill that we feel the tragedy of this violent story, while understanding the motivations and even sympathising with its human perpetrator. Blakeslee also pans away from this micro-drama in the soaring, snow-capped landscapes of Yellowstone to show us how the issues surrounding wolves affect all of American society.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about the animals and many of them are very antagonistic. As the author notes, the reintroduction of humankind’s arch enemy is as loaded with politics as abortion, gun control and war in the Middle East. What ultimately makes this book so satisfying is that it is as much an account of the deep divisions within contemporary America as it is a tale about the world’s most enduring carnivore. 

The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West
Nate Blakeslee
Oneworld, 300pp, £20

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief