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American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West Hardcover – October 17, 2017
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Shortlisted for the 2018 J. Anthony Lukas Prize
An Outside Magazine Best Book of 2017
A Science Friday Best Science Book of 2017
“Blakeslee draws O-Six in novelistic... detail, using the conflicting insight and perspective of biologists, politicians, ranchers, environmentalists, lawyers, other animals, and hunters.... Seeing a wolf is exceptionally rare, and this book is as close as most readers will come.”
—The New Yorker
“A matriarch overthrown in what seems fairly described as a 'putsch,' marauding gangs running attacks into neighboring territory, an hours-long standoff with a grizzly, a discarded water bottle—a rarity in the wilderness of a national park—tossed around and protected like a prized new toy. The lives of the wolves in Yellowstone are often dramatic, but are full of touching, tender moments too, as Nate Blakeslee vividly writes in American Wolf.”
—Los Angeles Times
"The story of one wolf’s struggle to survive in the majestic Yellowstone National Park offers an ambitious look through the eyes of an endangered animal."
—New York Times Book Review
“Ambitious... a significant and engaging work. It’s easy to write about the importance of local social life. It’s harder to know what to do to support it.... Klinenberg’s argument has a powerful simplicity. Look after the social infrastructure and social bonds will largely look after themselves.”
“American Wolf takes its place in a long lineage of wolf books.... [T]here are cherished, striking images here…testament to the ever-flowing life force that is the wolf.”
—Rick Bass, New York Times Book Review
“[American Wolf] is a startlingly intimate portrait of the intricate, loving, human-like interrelationships that govern wolves in the wild, as observed in real time by a cadre of dedicated wolf-watchers—in the end, a drama of lupine love, care, and grief.”
—Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake
“Wild, poignant, and compelling, American Wolf is an important, beautifully wrought book about animals, about values, and about living on this earth.”
—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin
“A transcendent tale of the American West."
—S. C. Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell
“Gripping and fascinating! Wolf versus wolf, wolf versus man, man versus man.”
—Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Hag-Seed (via Twitter)
“In this vibrant work of nonfiction, a Texas Monthly writer goes into the mind—and heart—of a wolf. He tells the remarkable true story of O-Six, a wolf brought back to the Rockies by conservationists, as she fights hunters, cattle ranchers, and her own species for survival.”
“[American Wolf] reads like a novel... a testament to the genius of Blakeslee’s tautly constructed narrative.”
“Blakeslee takes readers into the snowy [Lamar Valley], and deep into a genuinely human tale told with the energy and verve of a bestselling thriller. A tight, dense narrative, American Wolf races along like a predator on the hunt.”
“A masterful and elegant tale."
“Beautiful, detailed... [American Wolf] centers on the rise, reign, and family life of O-Six, matriarch of the Lamar Canyon pack and so well-known to park visitors that the New York Times gave her an obituary.”
—Publisher's Weekly (starred)
“The fight... [over] Yellowstone’s wolves is embodied in O-Six’s story, told with great immediacy and empathy in a tale that reads like fiction. This one will grab readers and impel them into the heart of the conflict.”
“Utterly compelling.... Blakeslee’s masterly use of fiction writing techniques to ratchet up the tension will hook a wide swath of readers.”
—Library Journal (starred)
“A savory blend of hardcore journalism, biodiversity analysis, weather and terrain reporting and good old-fashioned storytelling... American Wolf is the tale of an extraordinary wolf and those absorbed with her storied life.”
“Nate Blakeslee has achieved the Jack London-like feat of creating a great story whose main character is an animal."
—Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test and Redemption
“There are so few wolves in the West that each one can cast a kind of enchantment. This fine book takes one animal, and uses it as a way to understand the vectors that whipsaw the last wild places. It will linger in your mind and heart.”
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Radio Free Vermont
“American Wolf is an intimate and riveting book about America’s most iconic and embattled predator.... A wonderful and welcome addition to the pantheon of nature literature.”
—John Vaillant, author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce
“A well-rendered story... evenhanded but clearly and rightly on the side of the wolves.”
“Gorgeously written, and offering stunning insights into both animal and human nature, American Wolf is a masterly feat of science journalism.”
—Michael Finkel, author of The Stranger in the Woods
“Engaging... a must read for researchers, citizen scientists, and visitors to Yellowstone, where the story of the wolves continues to evolve.”
“As in a great novel, we are swept along in a multi-generational saga involving matters of character, courtship, and shifting social relations."
—Tom Kizzia, author of Pilgrim’s Wilderness
“Heartbreaking front-line coverage of our war on the wild.... Blakeslee hauntingly gives the victims faces, families, and stories. A quietly angry, aching, important book.”
—Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast
“A compelling environmental drama of the reintroduction of wolves to the Rockies, as clear-sighted on human politics as it is on wolf politics."
—Neil Ansell, author of Deep Country
“The Game of Thrones story of modern western wolves, [unfolding] in just as riveting a fashion. It is an absolutely mesmerizing read.”
—Dan Flores, author of Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History
“American Wolf gives us true profiles of wolf lives lived in their actual families. And when humans get involved, the trajectory of their lives forever changes.”
—Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
“Written with heart, but not sentimentality, American Wolf is nothing less than Shakespearean tragedy played out against the backdrop of our troubled relationship with nature.”
—J.B. MacKinnon, author of The Once and Future World
"[American Wolf] 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."
“O-Six is the definition of an alpha—strong, cunning, and a protector through and through. Her life in the wild is constantly challenged by other wolves, cattle ranchers, and hunters. It’s a “cultural clash” that will leave you on the edge of your chair.”
“[A] rich, poignant story of wolf recovery in Yellowstone and its impacts on the surrounding countryside and communities.”
—National Parks Traveler
“Blakeslee crafts a compelling narrative that allows him to explore in a profound and intimate way the cultural, political, social and economic factors that keep the presence of wolves in the West controversial.”
About the Author
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The book covers the life - and yes, the death - of O-Six, a female wolf who led a very successful pack within the boundaries of Yellowstone. It covers the reintroduction of the wolves to the park, including much of the politics involved in that decision and in the years thereafter. Unusually, Blakeslee intersperses the fascinating details of the wolves with that of the hunter who killed O-Six. His real name is not given, and it is easy to understand why. There are alternating chapters throughout between what is happening with the wolves, and the thoughts and actions of the hunter. It makes for an unusually suspenseful account in a non-fiction book, but it works extremely well. Though I knew where the story was going - where it *must* be going - I still held my breath, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried. I cried for all of the people who had followed this amazing wolf for so long, I cried for her pack, and I cried for the lack of understanding that led to that point.
Before I get vilified for being a snowflake - let me be clear: I grew up in a hunting family. We lived for years on the deer and the elk that we brought in, as well as the food we grew in our garden. I have no problem with those who hunt for food. I've done it, and my family does it. However, the idea of taking a life simply for the kill is abhorrent to me - as it should be to everyone. Killing just for the sake of killing is wrong, and should be condemned as such.
The only downside to the arc that I got is that it had no pictures. I do hope that the finished version will have some, because I feel that it would be a tremendously impactful addition, for readers unfamiliar with the O-Six saga to be able to see and admire the pack(s). Otherwise - Blakeslee has done an incredible job showing wolves for the amazing creatures they are, making clear the politics that gets played with these creatures' lives, and showcasing the amazing people who give their all for these animals every single day. It's an amazing book, and one that I hope will open the eyes of more people to the enduring American spirit that is our American Wolf.
Insights into the amazing lives of wolves derive mainly from the copious notes of dedicated wolf watcher Laurie Lyman, and from observations by Rick McIntyre, a famed Yellowstone Park interpretive ranger. Featured is O-Six, the most famous Yellowstone wolf to date.
We learn of incredible challenges that O-Six and her Lamar family faced, from fending off grizzly bears near their den to dealing with the constant threat of territorial encroachment by neighboring wolf families. The book describes, for example, her riveting showdown with the bison-hunting Mollie’s pack, and her unbelievable cliff jump to save herself and her pups.
O-Six was beloved by wolf watchers for “her stunning blend of confidence and competence that inspired them, her indomitable will, her ability to bend a harsh landscape to her own ends, to do what needed to be done to provide for herself and her family every day, without fail.” By 2012 “she had become one of the sights to see if you went to Yellowstone, like Old Faithful or the Upper Falls.” Her family’s response at the moment of her tragic death that December was nothing less than surreal.
For some readers, the book may be overly empathetic towards wolf hunter Steven Turnbull (not his real name) who lives in western Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park. Steven and most people in his small Crandall Valley community had been personally affected by a sharp drop in elk abundance that coincided with wolf reintroduction in the 1990s, an event biologists attribute not only to wolves but also to drought and overhunting at the time (in general, elk harvests are now up in the Northern Rockies even with the presence of wolves).
Turnbull and other local hunters find themselves in what is to them an annoyingly changed world. On one hand, hunting elk near the park is not nearly as easy it once was, and that undercuts their way of life; on the other, Yellowstone Park is a rebalanced ecosystem with more willows, more beavers, fewer coyotes, more pronghorns, more rodents, more food for raptors, and an upsurge in wolf-based tourism. Hunting park wolves can’t bring back the super abundant elk, but it can provide those offended by the wolf’s return a sense of retribution.
The book’s most salient human, however, is not Turnbull but rather protagonist Rick McIntyre, interpretive ranger and “ambassador” to the wolf-watching public. To the dedicated wolf watcher, “Rick was a guru.” Some readers may feel that the book is overly devoted to his story but I found it to be a fascinating and essential part since a lot of what we learn about wolves was through his eyes.
The opinions of Rick and park wolf biologist Doug Smith count hugely among admiring wolf watchers, and increasingly with the general public. But “Rick’s employment with the Park Service made the politics of the situation delicate." He showed “studied neutrality when fielding questions from visitors about wolf hunting around the park.” Nevertheless, if prominent figures like Rick and Doug couldn’t renounce wolf hunting near the park, or don’t even mention it to park visitors, who would?
Rick explained to a friend of mine that there was a federal-state deal made when wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s – that the states would allow wolf hunting outside the park. Yet, no one predicted Yellowstone would become a “wolf-watching mecca” and that its wolves would cross the park boundary and be killed during hunting seasons.
American Wolf holds out the promise that Rick will, once retired and no longer as obsessed about seeing wolves everyday, become a Yellowstone wolf “emissary, just as Jane Goodall had done when she torn herself away from her beloved chimps to begin her own writing and speaking career, championing their cause everywhere she went.”
In one sense, the broad debate about wolves in the West, with its emphasis on livestock conflicts, gets too much coverage in the book. It tends to obscure the amazing story of park wolves, and their unique scientific, educational, aesthetic, spiritual, and economic value.
In that light, I found an unfortunate statement in the book that could wrongly damage the reputation of park wolves: “In fact, almost every year since reintroduction, he [Doug Smith] had reluctantly approved the shooting of a handful of Yellowstone wolves who had attacked livestock grazing near the park.” In fact, agency records show that from 2000-2015 only two park wolves were put down, and no livestock losses could be attributed to park wolves.
Thus, the motivation to hunt national park wolves has nothing to do with protecting livestock. Rather it stems from the desire to get a unique trophy, or take advantage of an opportunity to find a more vulnerable, less wary wolf, or from sheer hatred of wolves and contempt for people who cherish them. “Get a good look, they won’t be there much longer,” one man said to Laurie Lyman as he passed through the park.
As Blakeslee points out, “some Yellowstone wolves had become tolerant of humans, especially those who lived in the Lamar Valley, where wolf watching had become so popular, raising the question of whether it was ethical to shoot them when they left the park.” O-Six and her family up until 2012 had never been in the woods with hunters.
While the book details legal and political battles over removing wolves from the endangered species list, it gives short shrift to the important idea of creating a no hunting, no trapping safety zone for wolves near the park: “Wolf advocates had lobbied for a kind of buffer zone around the park in which hunting would never be allowed, but such efforts hadn’t gotten very far.” That’s it! As a result, readers didn’t learn what a U.S. congressman and others did to advance the idea, and about what could be done; for example, designing safety areas by using location data on wolves leaving the park. But the Park Service has not pursued this, and once refused a biologist’s request for data that would allow him to undertake the task.
In a strange twist, Blakeslee describes how, immediately after the shooting of O-Six, the park’s wolf office transferred precisely that kind of location data (wrongly identified as “public information”) to an avid wolf watcher. As a private citizen, he used it in a “guerilla campaign” against would-be park wolf hunters. His aim was to stop wolves from leaving the park by using noise emitters along their likely routes. And, he used signal jammers to foil the radio receivers of anyone who might be monitoring radio-collared wolves moving out of the park!
I was surprised that the book fails to mention Park Service attempts to get wolves to avoid people, by chasing or throwing objects at wolves, using non-lethal shotgun fired munitions, and other means. These practices typically involved wolves, including O-Six, that ignore people and do not flee from them. This is a complex matter that should be of considerable concern to wolf watchers and a public desperate to see and enjoy wolves in the park. Should emphasis be on wolf management or on people management, including rules that protect wolves that happen to cross the park boundary?
Neither does the book say much about how hunting impacts the natural integrity of wolf society, and that of Yellowstone Park itself. Cross-boundary “edge effects” should be a matter of importance to everyone concerned about the future of national parks and wildlife in an increasingly human-dominated world.
I noticed only one technical gaffe in the book: “Male wolves provided food and care for their offspring, so unusual in the animal world.” Most bird enthusiasts would be surprised!
In sum, American Wolf should help change outdated thinking about wolves. They are not mere widgets of wildlife management but rather highly sentient beings whose lives can be as intriguing and complex as our own. As the book demonstrates, compassion, love, joy, hatred, betrayal, cruelty, mercy, wisdom, culture, and other aspects of humanity appear evident in wolf society. Wildlife management has for too long dealt with wolves strictly at the population level, not taking into account the lives and value of individual animals
While not perfect, American Wolf is a fascinating and informative book. I hope you will read it and join the growing number of people demanding an end to trophy hunting and trapping of wolves near our national parks.
(Dr. Povilitis directs Campaign for Yellowstone’s Wolves. Visit us on Facebook!)
Top international reviews
I have been fascinated by the Yellowstone wolves ever since I heard about the reintroduction project a little while back. Before reading this book, I thought that repopulating an apex predator would destroy the ecosystem. I could not be further from the truth. I did not know that Yellowstone Wolves are keystone species. Without them, the ecosystem becomes stunted in its biodiversity. I was surprised to learn that multiple wolf packs live in the park. That gives you an idea of the vastness of Yellowstone.
I really must commend Nate Blakeslee. This book is written so beautifully and evocatively that I felt as if I was there in Yellowstone Park a stone's throw away from the wolves. The main focus is on an alpha female named O-Six - a fierce, intelligent leader and hunter. I loved the fact that the author told the story through the perspective of O-Six. After being immersed in her day-to-day life, her personality really shone through.
It was interesting to read about how controversial the Yellowstone Wolves are and the different perspectives people have. Not only does Blakeslee provide the opinions of professional wolf guides, we also get perspectives from the Park Department and the individuals living in and around the park lands.
I highly recommend this book!
Quando la speranza sale, uomini di perfida volontà, animati da nient’altro che sete di sangue e pregiudizi, emergono per estinguere questi splendidi animali.
Un lungo resoconto che segue la vita di O-Six, una lupa solitaria che emerge dal ruolo di solitaria a capobranco e matriarca, fino alla sua tragica conclusione, difesa fino alla fine da chi la natura la ama, caduta per mano della gelida politica asservita alle lobby della doppietta.
Emerge in questa storia non solo il conflitto, ma la dedizione dei ricercatori, il loro perenne contatto con l’ambiente, giorno e notte, anno dopo anno, in nome della scienza e della conservazione di un ambiente meraviglioso quale il Parco Nazionale di Yellowstone.
Ahimé, non sarà mai facile trovare un equilibrio fra ragione e politica, fra amore e dissennata ferocia. Ma alla fine, che il vento giri a favore o contro di loro, si mostra bene in questo libro come i lupi di Yellowstone sanno trovare la loro via, nella speranza che ci sopravvivranno molto a lungo…