Review: American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

In 2008, investigative journalist Nate Blakeslee (Tulia, a PEN/Martha Albrand Award-finalist) became intrigued by the wolves of Yellowstone National Park, far from his Texas home. However, it was not until 2014 that he began to write of the life and death of its renowned alpha female wolf, O-Six. American Wolf is much more than a Discovery World special on wolf lore (although it includes plenty about wolves' habits and behavior), or a political discourse on the conflicts between conservationists and the rancher/hunters of the mountain states (although the issues of wolf preservation are political ones). Rather, it is a savory blend of hardcore journalism, biodiversity analysis, weather and terrain reporting and good old-fashioned storytelling.

Once numbering in the millions, the continental United States wolf population was alarmingly low by 1920. Wolves suffered from the loss of their primary prey (bison), high demand for their pelts and aggressive bounties. With no wolf population to trim the herd, elk were overrunning Yellowstone and spilling into the surrounding states. In 1995, the Park Service decided to embed elk predator Canadian wolves into northeast Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. They not only survived, but thrived in the rough mountain terrain--and with the growing packs came biologists and tourists to observe the roaming wolves. An extraordinary mother, hunter and leader, a third-generation wolf was born in 2006 (hence the "O-Six" sobriquet). She became a star of the park--boldly defending her turf, raising pups from three litters and bringing down elk to feed her pack.

If American Wolf were only a detailed study of wolves in the wild, it would rather quickly grow old. But Blakeslee is after a bigger story. Intrinsic to the O-Six saga are the wolf-watchers and scientists charged with monitoring the reintroduction of wolves. Among them is Rick McIntyre, who came to be known as "the wolf guy." A loner, McIntyre spent his time with a high-powered scope looking at wolves and recording their activities. He knew them both by sight and by the official number of their radio collars. He knew when females went to den to deliver a new litter, when alphas were killed by other packs, when a calf was culled from a herd of elk for food. He wrote five million words in his field journals and didn't miss a day in the mountains for 10 years--a "Cal Ripken of wolf-watchers." From McIntyre's journals and interviews, Blakeslee gets the hard habitat details of O-Six's life.

The end for O-Six came with the federal government's 2012 decision to take wolves off the endangered species list in the states neighboring Yellowstone. Near the small Wyoming town of Crandall, lifelong hunter Steven Turnbull was in the Absaroka mountains when O-Six appeared in his gun sight. His kill shot made the New York Times under the headline: "Famous Wolf Is Killed Outside Yellowstone." Turnbull (a pseudonym) became a pariah in the conservationist world. As he later told Blakeslee, "She didn't tell me she was famous before I shot her." American Wolf is the story of an extraordinary wolf and those absorbed with her storied life. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Journalist Nate Blakeslee explores the lineage, habitat and behavior of Yellowstone National Park's most famous wolf and the people with a personal and professional stake in wolf management.

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