Zack Apiratitham

American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee


Truly fascinating read about the wolf reintroduction project to Yellowstone, which I've never heard of until I came across this book. Now my appreciation of these majestic creatures is higher than ever before. And Yellowstone National Park just moved up to the top 3 of US national parks I must visit.

Check it out on Goodreads.

Highlights

  • Every pack in Yellowstone had at least one wolf that had been darted from a helicopter, collared, and assigned a number by the park’s small team of wolf biologists.

  • Territorial conflict was the most common cause of death for the park’s wolves, most of whom didn’t live beyond four or five years. Life for wolves was an adventure, but it was usually not a long one.

  • O-Six’s great-grandmother had been one of the first wolves reintroduced to the park, captured on the plains of western Canada, eight hundred miles to the north, and ferried south by plane and truck in the winter of 1995. By that time, Yellowstone had been essentially devoid of wolves for almost seven decades.

  • Once found in virtually every habitat between the Arctic Circle and present-day Mexico City, gray wolves had been the target of a centuries-long campaign of trapping and poisoning—a war waged both for their valuable pelts and to protect livestock. They were all but eliminated by the 1920s across the vast majority of the Lower 48.

  • Rangers patrolling on horseback finished the job the trappers had started: finding active dens, destroying the pups, and then trapping or tracking the returning adults so they could be killed as well.

  • As a science, wildlife management was still in its infancy, and park officials genuinely believed that predators would eventually decimate the park’s prey population if left to their own devices. They didn’t realize that wolves and elk had coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run just as fast as the wolf but no faster.

  • Hunting was big business in the Northern Rockies—not just for the professional hunting guides who relied on a steady stream of clients to earn a living, but also for the restaurants and motels that hosted the influx of out-of-town hunters who arrived every fall.

  • Now, just fourteen years after the first pens were opened in the Lamar Valley, the wolf population in the Northern Rockies had grown to over seventeen hundred animals.

  • Ensconced in the sparsely wooded Lamar Valley since the early days of reintroduction, the Druids were the easiest pack to spot for researchers and park visitors alike, making them the face of the reintroduction program for over a decade.

  • As the years went by and Yellowstone wolf-watching became a full-blown phenomenon, Rick became something of a celebrated figure himself, with all the perks—and headaches—that appertained. Visitors interested in seeing wolves learned by word of mouth that their best course of action was to look for Rick’s yellow Nissan Xterra.

  • Rick never quite got used to being followed, but he grew resigned to the routine: if he so much as paused in a pullout or parking lot, it was just a matter of time before one car would stop, then another. Soon a dozen cars would be squeezing in. Like a grizzly or a bald eagle or any of the park’s traffic-jam-inspiring attractions, he had been sighted.

  • Wolves had an evolutionary imperative to become attuned to the emotions of others because they lived in packs, where cooperation—for hunting, for protection from rivals—was paramount. Sociability enhanced the chances for survival.

  • Over years of watching wolves, Rick had become convinced that empathy was the single most important trait that an alpha could have, and 21’s capacity for it continued to amaze him.

  • Alpha wolves with Druid lineage were now spread throughout the Northern Range, including the female who would eventually lead the Agate Creek Pack and give birth to O-Six. To Rick, the Druids were like the Kennedys, American royalty.

  • Rick mourned 21’s death for a long time. In the years he’d watched the wolf, he felt he’d learned everything there was to know about him—his quirks, his moods, his strengths and weaknesses. He could guess what 21 would do before he did it. Rick liked to tell visitors that “21 never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival.” In fact, Rick sometimes called him “Superman,” because he’d always felt that 21, of all the wolves he’d known, had the perfect blend of valor and nobility. He hung a poster-size print of the enormous silver male on the wall above his writing desk in his cabin. Captured at full sprint, he appeared to be flying.

  • But O-Six, since leaving her natal pack, had become surprisingly adept at single-handedly bringing down prey.

  • Experiencing Yellowstone through a spotting scope was an entirely different experience from seeing the park from a car or even from a hiking trail. Only when you tried scanning the entire length of Specimen Ridge or Druid Peak one two-hundred-yard diameter circle at a time did you get a sense of how big the Lamar Valley really was.

  • The Lamar Valley boasted the highest prey density of anyplace on earth outside the African Serengeti.

  • From a high of 174 wolves just seven years before, the number of wolves had plummeted to roughly 100.

    Project biologists had long suspected that such a drop would occur as a kind of equilibrium was reached between predators and available prey, but it was still hard for veteran watchers to accept. Wolves were now harder to spot than they had been in years, and Rick resigned himself to the inevitability of an occasional day without a sighting.

  • Every year since reintroduction, they’d seen more wolves and fewer elk, as Louie had known they would. In the last count taken before wolves were reintroduced in 1995, over nineteen thousand elk were roaming Yellowstone’s Northern Range. By 2010, that number had plummeted to six thousand, roughly what it had been back in the 1960s, before rangers stopped culling the park’s herds.

  • In the rest of America, hunting was dying. Rates of participation had been declining for decades—only 6 percent of Americans still hunted. But in the Northern Rockies, it remained integral to the culture—Montana had the highest number of hunters per capita, and Wyoming wasn’t far behind.

  • For some, it was less a sport than a means of supplementing the family food budget. Butchering a five-hundred-pound elk yielded upward of 250 pounds of meat for the freezer, enough to last an average family nearly a year, all for the price of a fifty-dollar hunting permit.

  • Wolves were once the most widely distributed land mammal on earth, and every early pastoral civilization in the northern hemisphere outside of Africa competed with them for land on which to run livestock—and for the livestock themselves. Wolves very rarely attacked people, but a single wolf could ruin a shepherd’s livelihood if he developed a taste for cattle, sheep, or goats.

  • Humanity’s most beloved animal and its most despised were essentially the same creature, but the wolf’s threat to the shepherd’s livelihood poisoned relations between men and wolves, and the wolf’s reputation never recovered.

  • One brother would sometimes show up at the den carrying a large piece of elk, such as a leg assembly, but this process was clumsy, involving frequent stops to renew his grip. More commonly the males used their stomachs as grocery bags, swallowing up to twenty pounds of meat and making the long journey back to the den. When they arrived, their sides bulging noticeably, they regurgitated the meat for the pups, like birds feeding chicks in a nest.

  • The most common practice was to ride for several days in an enormous circle, leaving poisoned buffalo meat all along the route. By the time the wolfer came back around to the beginning of his circuit, dead wolves—along with countless other predators and scavengers, including eagles and other raptors—littered the ground. The wolves were skinned on the spot; the rest of the carcasses were left to rot.

  • His commitment to reintroduction was about science, not sentiment. Wolves belonged in the Northern Rockies because they played a vital role in the ecosystem, not because they were beautiful or fun to watch.

  • Wolves had become one of those polarizing issues, like abortion or gun control or war in the Middle East, about which the country could not seem to reach a consensus.

  • The real struggle was over public land—what it should be used for and who should have the right to decide. The federal government owned almost half of all the land in the West, in large part because nineteenth-century homesteaders found much of it too arid or too rugged to settle, unlike the more hospitable Midwest, which settlers had made into the nation’s breadbasket.

  • Rick knew that in the field of wildlife biology, imputing human characteristics to a creature that it doesn’t really have—anthropomorphizing, as the habit is known—is considered a cardinal sin and a hallmark of amateurism.

  • But wolves, Rick felt, were more like humans than they were given credit for, in their tribal ways and territoriality; in their tendency to mate for life; and in the way male wolves provided food and care for their offspring, so unusual in the animal world.

  • More than anything, what wolf advocates fought against was the long-held notion that wolves were nothing more than killing machines.

  • O-Six, as Laurie frequently pointed out to her readers, was rarely “cuddly.” But that wasn’t why she and so many other watchers had come to admire her. It was her stunning blend of confidence and competence that inspired them, her indomitable will, her ability to bend a harsh landscape to her own ends, to do what needed to be done to provide for herself and her family every day, without fail. Seeing her in action was like watching a gifted athlete,

  • More wolves, it seemed, meant more beavers, but that wasn’t all: the return of Yellowstone’s top predator was having repercussions up and down the park’s food chain.

  • In short order, Yellowstone’s newly dominant canines reduced the Northern Range’s coyote population by half.

  • hunters could shoot a hundred wolves on the other side of Alaska without engendering a peep of protest. But shoot one park wolf that people had come to know and love, and suddenly everyone in the state was talking about the evils of wolf-hunting.

  • When an alpha died, especially a female, packs tended to splinter.

  • By the time the hunting and trapping seasons around the park concluded, twelve Yellowstone wolves had been lost, including six collared animals.

  • In the five years since legal hunting began, trophy hunters had taken over 2,500 wolves in the Northern Rockies, 1,500 of them in Idaho alone. Wolf populations are notoriously difficult to estimate, but official counts showed that the total in Montana at the end of 2014 was 554, down about 100 from pre-hunting levels. In Idaho, game officials had managed to reduce the population from a high of 893, in 2009, to 770.

  • Hunting was an intellectual pursuit for him. You had to know your prey, and you had to take them ethically. He spoke often about the principle of fair chase and what it meant to him. He wanted me to know he’d followed the Lamar wolves’ movements for weeks before he found them, driving around Crandall looking for tracks and listening for their howls. “I put in my time to get that wolf,” he said.

  • Humans might not have become humans, in other words, without wolves.

  • Wolves have larger brains, and studies of captive wolves have found them to be demonstrably smarter than dogs; they are better able to distinguish quantities, for example.

  • After the death of O-Six, the mantle of world’s most famous wolf fell to a gray female who had been collared by Wyoming game officials near Cody. In October 2014, she showed up at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, the first wolf sighted in the area since the 1940s.