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Less than a month after moving to Missoula for graduate school, I found myself sitting at home one February night, fully engaged in three quintessential Montana pastimes: low-stakes gambling, drinking with strangers and talking about hunting. Between the hands of a seven-card stud, my housemate and three friends of his — all of them adult-onset sportsmen — took sips of local IPA and discussed the previous deer season. One of them, J, had completed his hunter education course just a few months earlier. He told us that near the end of the training, the facilitator projected photos of various Western game animals in different situations — a hillside muley buck at a hundred yards and quartering away, say, or a cow elk in dense cover, broadside but vitals obscured — as J and a roomful of his classmates took turns playing a game of Would You Take That Shot. At one point, J said, the facilitator showed a photo of a treed mountain lion at close range — a good clean shot if ever there was one. Everyone else in the room agreed: yeah, they’d take that shot. When J said he wouldn’t, even the facilitator looked surprised. “Why not?” he asked J. “Because,” J answered, “I don’t shoot top predators.”
This was early 2008. I did not know it yet, but J’s story and others being told that night were part of a larger conversation taking place across the intermountain West — in living rooms of college rental houses, yes, but also on sprawling cattle ranches, in the administrative offices of various national parks, and in federal courtrooms in Missoula and beyond. Wolves had been successfully reintroduced in Yellowstone only thirteen years earlier, and the debate was raging over what to do or not to do about their surging numbers.
I was 25 years old and had been hunting since I was old enough to shoulder a BB gun. Like many folks who hail from places east of the hundredth meridian, though, when it came to the controversial issues of public land and resource management, I was as green as the Bermuda grass on a Georgia tee box. J and the others had recently completed the Environmental Studies program I was soon to begin. Their storytelling vocabulary included unfamiliar terms like charismatic megafauna and trophic cascade. For these guys, hunting was an activity not of family tradition, subsistence, or pride, but of ethics. They drank raw milk. They grew their own kale. Predators, in their view, were the pinnacle of healthy, vibrant ecosystems, and venison occupied the protein triangle at the peak of their local food pyramid. They were as likely to shoot a mountain lion or a gray wolf as they were to shoot a house cat or a hound dog.
Steven Rinella and others would soon build media empires at this confluence of hunting and haute cuisine. And events like the 2016 Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, or Montana Governor Greg Gianforte’s 2021 trapping of a collared Yellowstone wolf — not to mention blockbuster shows like Yellowstone — would later take issues of Western regional interest and plant them firmly into the great er national consciousness. In 2008, though, the optics of the public land controversy were still quite blurry to those living outside the arid West. But even myopic newcomers like me could sense the coming ruckus, and we could see that then, like now, its symbolic focal point was wolves.
In his book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, Nate Blakeslee captures the passion and furor of that era as only the most skilled of journalists could. He recounts the story of the two decades following the 1995 Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, doing so through the eyes — or spotting scopes — of a number of interested stakeholders. These perspectives include those of renowned ranger and author Rick McIntyre and his fellow wolf watchers and advocates; also of the plaintiffs, defendants and federal judges at the center of the legal battle to determine whether, and how, state-sanctioned wolf hunting seasons might violate the Endangered Species Act or not; of an elk hunter turned wolf hunter in a small Wyoming town just beyond the Yellowstone park boundary; of U.S. Senator John Tester from Big Sandy, Montana, whose eleventh-hour rider on a 2011 budget bill paved the path both for his 2012 reelection and for the federal delisting of wolves from the endangered species list; and even of the wolves themselves, both generally, as an environmental boon to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and specifically, in the fascinating stories of two of the most beloved alpha wolves and their packs: 21 of the Druid Peak Pack and O-Six of the Lamar Canyon Pack. Blakeslee’s tale exceeds the standard set by Mark Twain, who famously liked “a good story well told,” by taking the standard ‘protagonist complication resolution’ storytelling structure and both employing and subverting it. What results is equal parts riveting narrative and a portrait of a political power struggle gone viral. It’s the story not just of wolf reintroduction in the West, but of the cultural and economic conflicts the wolves have come to represent.
The number of wolves now in the northern Rockies confirms their return to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as being one of the most successful species reintroduction campaigns in American history. Since Blakeslee’s American Wolf was published in 2017, population estimates in Montana alone have consistently hovered upwards of 1,200 wolves. Twenty Five years of their presence on the land has done little, though, to quell the debate over whether or not they belong. In fact, like other contentious battles in today’s acrimonious culture wars, the fight over wolves has only intensified.
Last August, after receiving direction from the 2021 legislature requiring state agencies to decrease wolf numbers, Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to increase wolf harvest by allowing neck snaring, trap baiting and night hunting on private land, among other controversial measures. Seven weeks into this year’s winter wolf season, 237 of the statewide quota of 450 wolves had already been killed. 85 of them were taken in Region 3, the hunting district nearest the northwest entrance of Yellowstone National Park, where the quota had been set at 82. Governor Gianforte’s recent killing of a collared mountain lion in the same area, while well within the law, was a personal act that stank of a putrid political agenda. With it he gave an answer to a question that no faction — be they pro predator, anti-predator or predator curious — had needed to ask: Would you take that shot? Yeah, said the governor. He’d take that shot.
While Blakeslee’s prose sometimes lacks the lyrical flair of writers like Barry Lopez or Rick Bass, you get the sense reading American Wolf that this is a matter not of talent but of intent. The choices Blakeslee makes in his writing are clearly meant to serve two of his main purposes: to illustrate an epic saga from multiple competing viewpoints, and to reach an audience beyond the usual readership of wolf-watching websites and blogs, or those vehemently opposed to their anti-wolf hunting viewpoint, or even folks merely fascinated by the natural resource conflicts of the American West. Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men and Bass’s The Ninemile Wolves have become seminal works in Canis lupus literature. Blakeslee’s book seems destined for similar enshrinement. Certainly, for an introduction to the fierce clashes still being fought both in the West and in Washington, D.C., one could choose no better place to start.