What we have forgotten about the vilified gray wolf

The saga of O-Six lays bare the intricacies of a familiar, parallel society in wolves.

 

On Dec. 8, 2012, The New York Times ran a story titled “ ‘Famous’ wolf is killed outside Yellowstone.” A radio-collared female, beloved by park wolf-watchers, had been shot in Wyoming’s first legal hunt after the federal government lifted Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the state.

Until then, the wolves that had begun to flourish in the Northern Rockies were abstractions to most people, if they knew about them at all. We tend to think of wild animals as collectives, playing their role in ecosystems or on the fringes of human communities, interchangeable units of a larger whole.

Here, though, was an individual, with a recognizable cream-and-gray face that gave her species the weight of identity, and her killing raised an outcry from around the country. For beyond the brief news of her death was a life, as singular in its details, perhaps, as each of our own. American Wolf, Nate Blakeslee’s second nonfiction book, is an engrossing, cinematic account of that life — and through it, the sweeping tale of wolves’ return to a more tolerant but far less wild West.

Scientists called the famous wolf 832F. Wolf-watchers knew her as O-Six, for the year of her birth. She stole their hearts in 2010, when she single-handedly took down the alpha female of another wolf pack, securing some of the park’s best territory for her own, and then, in the next beat, hurled herself in solitary chase after a bull elk.

Yellowstone’s O-Six after making her first known solo elk kill, an impressive feat for any wolf, male or female.
Jimmy Jones

Relying on thousands of pages of field notes and direct observations from veteran wolf-watchers Laurie Lyman and Rick McIntyre, Blakeslee paints O-Six as an initially improbable protagonist. She spends her first three years roving alone, vulnerable to attacks by her own kind. When she finally does start a pack in her middle age, it’s with a pair of much younger brothers that some watchers nickname “Dumb and Dumber” for their bumbling early attempts at hunting and terror of empty blacktop.

Yet O-Six becomes a benevolent matriarch and attentive mother. Larger than most females, she is also an especially skilled hunter — taking down prey on her own, rare for a species that relies on cooperative hunting.

As Blakeslee follows O-Six’s ascension, American Wolf becomes a pair of love stories, braided together with the surprisingly relatable tale of O-Six’s eventual killer, a reasonable man who embodies the anti-wolf animus of rural Westerners unwilling to share either the land where they struggle to raise livestock, or the elk they also hunt.

The first of these love stories is between the wolves and their watchers.

Chief among them is McIntyre, a full-time employee in Yellowstone’s biology department who is so enamored of the canines that he braves blizzards and backburners romantic relationships to keep an eye on the packs, tallying over 85,000 wolf sightings in the park over the course of his career.

The second is between O-Six and her alpha male, 755 — tracking his own development into a skilled leader, and following their offspring out into the world. It is impossible to read about the animals’ lives — the uncle who keeps a careful eye on the shyest pup in the litter; a green afternoon spent romping for the apparent joy of it; the heartrending moment when O-Six’s pack gathers to stand vigil over her body after she’s shot — and not be convinced that wolves have complex emotional and intellectual lives.

In this, O-Six’s story becomes the promontory from which to glimpse a whole society of wolves. There is the alpha who, instead of killing the pups of her in-pack rival, raises them alongside her own. There is a pack that learns to specialize in bison — wolves no heavier than a man bringing down a creature the size of a hatchback — and then fractures into a gang of marauding wolf-killers after losing its alphas.

Theirs is a society, at once alien and unsettlingly familiar, that paralleled and occasionally touched our own for thousands of years, before increasingly settled agricultural and urban cultures routed it from their midst. Once, Blakeslee writes, wolves were the most widespread large land mammals on Earth. Now, humans are, and wolves live in pockets outside the vast, mostly unpeopled wilds of places like Alaska and northern Canada only by our grace and will.

Like Barry Lopez’s foundational 1978 Of Wolves and Men and much of the rest of the Canis lupus canon, American Wolf attempts to show us, truthfully, a creature that Western civilization has long vilified, and only recently come to admire. Blakeslee’s timing couldn’t be better. Today, from their cradle in the Northern Rockies, wolves have returned to Washington, Oregon and California, and occasionally trickle into Utah and Colorado. In New Mexico and Arizona, another reintroduced population clings to life. Now that we have opened up a tenuous place for wolves again, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the ones that run among us. American Wolf can help us see: Who are they? What have we forgotten about them?

Sarah Gilman is a contributing editor for High Country News and a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She intermittently posts bylines on her website.

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