By Marisa Charpentier in 40 Acres on January 1, 2018
She is charismatic and intelligent. Fierce but merciful, she’s both a fighter and a loving mother. The focus of Nate Blakeslee’s latest nonfiction book, she isn’t the typical protagonist though—she’s a wolf.
O-Six is an alpha female named after her birth year. She was called “the most famous wolf in the world” by The New York Times after she began attracting wolf-watchers to her home in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. Wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, which sparked controversy among hunters, ranchers, and environmentalists alike. A journalist who typically writes about politics, Blakeslee was drawn to the debate, and in 2012, when a hunter legally shot and killed the beloved O-Six, he’d found his story. He would write about this political hotbed through the life of the wolf itself.
In American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, award-winning journalist Blakeslee, MA ’96, cinematically chronicles O-Six’s life, and gives voice to the hunters and conservationists on opposite sides of the debate. Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company Appian Way has already snatched up the film rights.
Can you explain the controversy surrounding wolves?
It’s been going on forever. The reason they were hunted out to begin with in the late 19th century is partly for their fur, but also because they were a threat to the ranching business, and the ranching business was so powerful there. It continues to be to this day. The descendants of those ranchers that hunted out the wolves in the 19th century are all still there. Also, elk hunting is big business in the northern Rockies, and wolves eat a lot of elk. People that make a living from guiding hunts or running motels that rely on hunters were very much against reintroduction.
But this has been going on so long in the West now that where you stand on wolves as a politician in the West has become kind of a litmus test. The rhetoric around the issue has gotten so divorced from the actual impact of wolves. You bash wolves and by extension you bash the federal government, which reintroduced wolves. That’s very popular in politics in the West now, to be against overreaching federal bureaucrats.
When did you learn about O-Six’s story?
About 10 years ago I took a wolf watching class in Yellowstone. When I was up there, I didn’t see O-Six, but I met some of the people who would become characters in the book, like Rick McIntyre, who works for the park service. He’s like Yellowstone’s wolf guru, and I talked to him about maybe doing a magazine profile, but I could never really figure out the right way to tell the whole story about the reintroduction of wolves and what an amazing success it was, but at the same time, how politically controversial it was. By then, the fight was over whether or not wolves should be hunted in the northern Rockies. Then in The New York Times, I read the story of O-Six, the most famous wolf in Yellowstone and what had happened to her, and that seemed like the best way to tell the story: through the lens of one famous wolf’s life.
When did you realize the story would work best as a book?
It’s just such a rich story. I really wanted it to read like a true-life Jack London story in which the characters were animals. That was possible because O-Six was seen by probably more than a million people watching on the roadside in Yellowstone. But more importantly she was watched on a daily basis by this much smaller group of die-hard wolf aficionados. I met one of them. Her name is Laurie Lyman. She’s a retired school teacher from San Diego, and she gave me this treasure trove: 2,400 pages of notes she had taken on O-Six and her family. It was like the diary of a wolf pack, and it provided all the raw material you would need to reconstruct their life with the kind of detail and the kind of intimacy you would expect in a novel.
What made O-Six so special?
She was the wolf that was most visible in the park during a time when wolf watching had become very popular. She happened to come into her own at the time Facebook was really exploding, so her image and her story were informally passed around everywhere. She went viral.
Rick McIntyre is another figure in the book. Why did you choose him?
He is one of the most genuinely eccentric people I’ve ever met. He’s absolutely obsessed with wolves. He’s in his mid-60s. He’s unmarried. He basically lives in the park. He spent 15 years without missing a day of watching wolves. He essentially considers wolves to be his family. Any wolf that you spot at the roadside with Rick, he can tell you that wolf’s lineage. He can tell you its personality. He’s an interpretive ranger, so his job is to sort of help visitors understand what they’re seeing. He, more than anyone else, is the reason that there is this phenomenon of wolf watching in the park. He was the person who first helped visitors find wolves. More than just telling people what to eat or how old they are, he really loves to tell stories about them because that was what matters to him. It made it just a much more rich experience, watching wolves in the park, if Rick was there.
How is this book different from your last book, which discusses the police corruption scandal in the Texas Panhandle?
It’s still a book about the intersection of politics and policy. That’s what’s interesting to me. We think about wildlife management as a science, and in some ways it is, but it’s also very political. Wolves are extremely controversial. The rise of humans parallels the decline of wolves. They were once the most widely distributed land mammal on the planet, and now we are. Every gain that humans have made has come at the expense of wolves. I was really fascinated by that idea, that this was a lens through which you could look at the history of the northern hemisphere over the last 500 years or so, this battle between the two most dominant species.
You were able to talk with the hunter who killed O-Six. What was that like?
I wanted to have a wolf-hunter’s perspective because you want to know how both sides of this issue see the world. And they do see the world very differently. And so finding him was a real breakthrough. He’s kept his name out of the papers for obvious reasons. He wanted to avoid that backlash. It’s actually against the law in the state of Wyoming for a public official to identify someone who shot a wolf because they know that it could turn into a Cecil the Lion situation. But he agreed to participate. He wanted his side of the story to be in there. All he really wanted was for his story to be told properly and respectfully.
What do you hope your book contributes to the debate surrounding wolves?
I hope that it helps unpack the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. It takes a clear-eyed look at what the impact of wolves has been on the northern Rockies and tries to separate out this issue of people trying to score points politically on the issue versus people actually trying to find solutions to the problems that do arise with respect to wolves. Secondly, the reason I wanted the book to tell a story of a wolf’s life, is because a wolf’s life is this amazing story of overcoming hardship and these amazing moments of empathy at the den. If we really knew what every wolf’s life was like, would we be so cavalier about shooting any one wolf?