On December 6, 2012, a Wyoming ranch worker and year-round hunter crunched his way across a snowy stretch of national forest and, having paid twelve dollars for a license for the privilege, shot a wolf to death with a long-range rifle. The kill was legal, sanctioned by a law permitting the “harvesting” of wolves outside Yellowstone National Park. But it immediately brought heated criticism of the hunter, who was at first unidentified in press reports, and of the whole business of hunting, even as advocacy groups rose up for and against.
Like Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion murdered by a Minnesota dentist two years ago, Turnbull’s victim was a beloved fixture, well known to tourists and animal researchers alike. As Texas Monthly writer Nate Blakeslee chronicles in his new book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, the alpha female known to biologists as 832F and to everyone else as O-Six, for the year of her birth, had followers on social media around the world, thanks in large measure to the behind-the-scenes work of another star in the wolf world, biologist Rick McIntyre.
“I worked in Yellowstone when I was 19 and 20,” Blakeslee says from his home in Austin. “The place was wolf-free—it was before the wolves had been reintroduced. But Rick had been working on their return for years. Even while I was there in the late ’80s the process had begun, and it happened just a few years later.”
The reintroduction effort that McIntyre—central to this story, and long rumored to be writing his own book about the matter—spearheaded touched off great controversy. Biologists considered it critical that an apex predator return to an ecosystem that had been thrown out of whack by its absence. Local ranchers worried that wolves would prey on their livestock instead of on wild game, and local hunters feared that wolves would reduce the number of game animals that they sought.
As it turns out, as Blakeslee notes, everyone was right to one degree or another. The wolves spread out beyond the park, and as they did, on occasion, they’d take down a cow or an elk. They behaved as predators will. What’s more, those wolves are highly territorial, and, as Blakeslee notes, the leading cause of their mortality has been not humans but fighting with other wolves. The larger fight that has surrounded them has less to do with cows or elks, though, than with the power of the states over the federal government to declare which animals will be protected and not and of local people to use the land as they see fit. In that setting, reintroduced wolves have become a symbol of federal power—and thus, in many western circles, an enemy.
“I normally write about politics here in Texas,” says Blakeslee, “and I wanted to figure out a way to write about wolf reintroduction as a matter of politics and public policy. It was such a polarizing issue, and one that everyone in the West had an opinion about.”
In that regard, American Wolf is as much about the cultural divide between the rural and urban west, between those who live on the land and those who come to commune with nature and see spectacular scenery and wildlife. Put another way, the book is about O-Six and her unfortunate end, and about the lives of her fellow wolves on and off federal property. But more, it’s about the fights over laws that govern whether animals such as the wolf should be protected or made available to hunters and other private interests.
“Somebody told me that the world of wolves is like Game of Thrones,” says Blakeslee. If there is a wealth of human politics and policy behind his book, there is also a great deal of on-the-ground experience with the animals themselves, fierce and intelligent creatures. He adds, “I think of my book as an adventure story—what an amazing adventure it is to get to know those wolves. I never would have thought it possible to get so close to them, to know them as individuals in the same way that you know the dogs in your house—and it is possible, if you’re willing to go out there every day and find them.”
The question remains what to do after you’ve found them. Will the wolf survive, or will it be the hunted instead of the hunter?
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.