American Wolf

Shifting between politics, wolf pack drama, and Yellowstone magnificent and severe, American Wolf, A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee reads like a multi-generational novel. Blakeslee, writer-at-large for Texas Monthly, probes and chronicles years of trouble and strife among Yellowstone’s Lamar Creek Pack, as well as park politics – inevitably pressing the question of whether lupus lupus or homo sapiens plays the villain more.

While other Yellowstone wolves have achieved “stardom” through wilderness documentaries, Blakeslee’s protagonist is no starlet. Named after the year of her birth, O-Six is fiercely intelligent, a doting mother who even becomes adept at killing elk on her own (something most wolves never accomplish). O-Six, in fact, is probably the most famous wolf in the world, with gangs of wolf-watchers (cameras and binoculars dangling) bending rules and distance regulations just to glimpse the alpha female. She’s also able to elude ecologists trying to track her via helicopter.

As Yellowstone’s wolf population grows, the park’s wolf packs vie for territory, and O-Six and her pack struggle against The Druids and other packs for elk, bison, and new mates. Other threats are more general, as when mange hits the park, depriving healthy wolves of their winter coats, and many freeze to death. Wolves rob rival packs of their kill, the young are murdered, and, with sexual interest rising, O-Six howls for a mate, that follow her scent trail and urine stains across miles.

Like any novel of depth, American Wolf lifts into the metaphoric – the wolves not only struggle with each other, but with civilization. Ranchers press their rights to protect their herds, settler stock (whose forbears dropped wolf numbers near extinction by the 1920s) are still animated by fear, politicians make the rules, and sportsmen begrudgingly compete with the wolf for elk. Shots are really fired when Wyoming lifts its wolf hunting protections and it’s open season on O-Six. Simply put, this work of nature journalism is one of the best books on Yellowstone we’ve seen.