Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Crown, 2017. 320 pgs. Library copy.
Subtitled “A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West”, Blakeslee follows the life and death of one of Yellowstone National Park’s most famous residents, a gray wolf known as O-Six. Born in 2006 (hence the name), O-Six became the alpha female for a large portion of prime real estate in Yellowstone, a stretch known as the Lamar Valley, in part because of her unique ability to take down an elk on her own.
Her benevolence as a leader (and her decision to den close to the roadways) made her a favorite among wolf watchers, and her pack was considered one of the great success stories since the reintroduction of Canis lupus in Yellowstone in 1995. (The last wolves in the lower 48 states lived in upper Michigan and Minnesota, and the species was considered extinct in the Yellowstone ecosystem by the early 1900s.)
To say the decision to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone was a controversial one would be to underplay the animosity that continues to this day. The restoration of the wolves may have “saved the park” from overgrazing and brought back populations of beavers and other small mammals, but it has also pushed the elk into higher elevations where the wolves do not roam. Which means hunters have to work harder to shoot an elk as the elk no longer come down into the valleys and where they can easily be shot from roadways.
The wolves also, occasionally, pray on livestock, which angers ranchers and, therefore, the politicians in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana as ranching is an important aspect of the economy and ethos for the surrounding three states. (Idaho was #7 out of 50 in 2014 for the number of cattle within the state’s boundaries. Montana was #10.)
In order to appease these factions, the original plan to reintroduce wolves put together by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting endangered species like Canis lupus, promised the three states surrounding Yellowstone would be allowed to manage the wolf population once the wolves were considered recovered in the region. What constitutes as “recovered”, though, is another controversial topic, and politicians in Montana — including Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana — intervened in order to force the de-listing of the wolves and the opening of the hunting season. Which is how O-Six ended up being killed in 2012 during the first legal wolf hunt in Wyoming, a state in which the majority of Yellowstone resides.
As a resident of Montana near the borders of Yellowstone, I know first hand the controversy surrounding the wolves and the lengthy saga of how they have been listed and de-listed as endangered species. I still remember when the news came out that O-Six had been killed, and how that announcement only managed to amplify the anger between pro- and anti-wolf forces.
Therefore, the draw of Blakelee’s book for me was less about the story of O-Six, although I did learn a tremendous amount about her story as an individual wolf, and more about the revelation that he had met and interviewed the person who killed O-Six. (In Wyoming, it is illegal to identify any individual who legally kills a wolf, which is an understandable law given how heated things have become between conservationists and hunters.) I don’t want to spoil too much about that portion of the book, but I did find the hunter’s experience to be both enlightening and maddening.
Enlightening because he had an experience with O-Six and her pack that left a lasting impression on him. An experience most wolf watchers could only dream of having. Maddening because that experience didn’t change his anti-wolf, unscientific view of how elk should be managed in and outside of Yellowstone.
On a more personal note, I read Blakelee’s book in the weeks following my mom passing away, and the stories within reminded me of a number of happy memories during a period when those were hard to remember. My mom loved the wolves, but she was more passionate about helping me realize my dream of seeing a wolf in the wild. Rick McIntyre, a Yellowstone park ranger, features heavily in the book, and I spent many winter visits to Yellowstone with my mom and dad hoping to spot his yellow Xterra and, therefore, a wolf. And I realized during the course of reading this book that the only wolf I’ve ever seen in the park — an experience I shared with my parents — was near O-Six’s original den site, which beautifully entwines my dream and my mom with the story presented here.