A Conversation with Nate Blakeslee

The author on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and the delicate work of writing across charged lines.

Wolves

Before men ruled the earth, there were wolves. Once abundant in North America, the majestic creatures were hunted to near extinction by the 1920s. But in recent decades, conservationists have brought wolves back to the Rockies, igniting a battle over the soul of the West.

With novelistic detail, Nate Blakeslee tells the gripping story of one of these wolves, O-Six, a charismatic alpha female named for the year of her birth. Uncommonly powerful, with gray fur and faint black ovals around each eye, O-Six is a kind leader, a fiercely intelligent fighter, and a doting mother. She’s beloved by wolf watchers and becomes a social media star, with followers around the world.

But as she raises her pups and protects her pack, O-Six is challenged: by hunters who compete with wolves for the elk they both prize, by cattle ranchers who are losing livestock and have the ear of politicians, and by other Yellowstone wolves vying for control. These forces collide in American Wolf, a riveting saga that tells a larger story about the ongoing cultural clash in the West—between those fighting for a vanishing way of life and those committed to restoring one of the country’s iconic landscapes.

Nate spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright, spanning everything from how he worked with the dedicated super-watchers of the wolves to chronicle O-Six and her pack, how the wolves share some surprising commonalities with humans, and why he thinks wolves have gotten a bad rap since the days of nursery rhymes.

Read It Forward: Congratulations on American Wolf! Can you tell us a little bit about this book?

Nate Blakeslee: American Wolf tells the story of O-Six, who was this celebrity wolf in Yellowstone, probably the most visible wild animal in the world. She became famous when wolf watching became a phenomenon in Yellowstone. People set up their scopes on the side of the road and watch for wolves, and she was the easiest one to see. They became enchanted by this adventurous story that was her life.

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RIF: Wow. So you wrote the book using notes from these wolf watchers, describing the wolves and how they were hunting, fighting in packs, and waging different wars against each other. How did you recreate these scenes so beautifully? Did the watchers witness these things firsthand?

NB: O-Six was viewed casually by millions of tourists who came to Yellowstone, but there was this cadre of hyper-dedicated wolf watchers who came every day, and among those watchers were Lori Lineman and Rick McIntyre. Lori, early on in the process of reporting, gave me this treasure trove of notes. It was 2,400 pages, three years’ worth, about O-Six and her pack: the diary of a wolf, basically.

Along with mundane behavior, Lori witnessed really amazing behavior. It was a process going through the notes, reading them all, because I wanted to know what the life of a wolf was like. Not only the daily life, but also to find those moments that were so amazing and cinematic. And once I talked to Rick and asked to see his notes from the same date, I interviewed everybody who was there. They saw these events take place from miles away through these super powerful spotting scopes. You can see the expression on the wolf’s face from two miles away. So it was possible to recreate those scenes—O-Six fighting with rival packs, raising her pups, defending the den from grizzlies—as though I was writing a novel in which the main characters were animals. Like a Jack London story, except all of it’s true.

RIF: I love the way you’ve described the wolves, and their behavior seems almost humanlike: the way they nurture and protect their young, how territorial of the home space they can be. Did you draw some of the same conclusions about these parallels?

NB: It was important to me not to anthropomorphize or be sentimental about them. You know, they’re wild animals; they’re not pets, and they’re not people. On the other hand, they do have these amazingly complex social lives. It wasn’t really necessary to interpret their feelings and to add drama. You could just describe what they were doing. And they do behave somewhat like people. They raise their pups collectively. They defend their territory like a tribe would. They have these social hierarchies that are maintained from the lowest up to the highest-ranking member. There’s one breeding pair in the pack that’s basically a family: an alpha male and female and their offspring. So there’s a lot that, although exotic, is strangely familiar.

RIF: Throughout history, wolves have been given a bad rap in nursery rhymes and fairytales, spawning these sayings we’ve come to know, like a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Why do you think that’s occurred—what is it about the wolf that’s so pervasive?

NB: Partly it’s because they were everywhere. Wolves were the most widely distributed land mammal on the planet for thousands of years, and everywhere that early civilizations attempted to establish some kind of pastoral society to raise goats, sheep, cattle, or to clear land, wolves were the obstacle that had to be overcome, and that was true in the United States in the 19th century. Every gain that humans made came at the wolf’s expense, to the point today where humans are now the most widely distributed land mammal, and wolves are found only on the margins.

But they’re making a comeback. What’s chronicled in the book, or the pre-story of this book, is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and to the Northern Rockies in general, which was done in the mid-nineties and was massively successful.

RIF: That’s a great lead-in to this next question, because the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone really impacted the entire ecosystem, affecting the beaver population, birds of prey, the coyotes, pronghorn antelopes. Can you talk about the changes that occurred as a result of this reintroduction of wolves?

NB: Well, wolves had to be brought back to Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies because they were all hunted out by the end of the 19th century. There were still a few in the 1910s and twenties, but what we saw as a result of removing that apex predator was an explosion in the prey population, chiefly elk, that became so dense it began damaging their habitat. Wildlife biology was in its infancy. The people who managed the park didn’t understand that if you removed the apex predator, the whole ecosystem would go haywire. But they realized they needed to do something about the fact that there were too many elk, so they started doing what the wolves did and culling them, shooting thousands every winter.

And then came the idea that bringing the wolves back in might be a more holistic solution. They weren’t far—there were thousands in Canada—and that idea was floated as early as the 1940s, but it was very controversial. The ranchers, descendants of those who hunted them out, were still there in the Northern Rockies and were very opposed to it. Hunting elk is big business in the Northern Rockies, and wolves eat a lot of elk. But it finally did happen in the mid-nineties, and when it did, exactly what the biologists predicted would happen in Yellowstone did happen. Now, 20 years on, the park’s a much healthier ecosystem than it once was.

RIF: That’s so cool. Why was it important for you to write this story? You live in Texas, over 1,500 miles away from Yellowstone. What struck you about this story, and why did you feel it was worth your time to tell it?

NB: What’s so wonderful about the West is that it’s our collective heritage as a nation because so much of it is publicly owned, especially in the Northern Rockies. Two-thirds of Idaho is owned by the federal government, which is to say it’s owned by us. Wherever you live, you have as much say in how it’s managed as the people in Idaho do. And Yellowstone is a national treasure; it’s one of the top tourist destinations in the country. It’s this amazing gem, and it belongs to everyone. So we all have a stake in how that’s managed and what the future holds for that area.

It was very dear to me. I used to go there when I was in college and get summer jobs. I fell in love with the place, the mountains and the woods. Of course, there were no wolves at that time. Then I followed the reintroduction project from afar, and when I heard about O-Six, it seemed like the time was right to dive into that story. And it was way too rich for just a magazine story; it had to be a book.

RIF: I wouldn’t have thought this story about O-Six and these amazing Yellowstone wolves would give an important look at the political shift of the U.S. in the past 20 years, but it really does. Can you describe how what you learned while researching can serve as a microcosmic look at how the U.S. has shifted politically, in terms of gun control and environmental conservation?

NB: You can’t really write about wolves without writing about politics in the West. It’s such a hot-button issue, and it has been for so long. They’ve been fighting over wolves for two generations now. The reintroduction was immensely controversial, and a lot of people saw it as the overreaching federal government ramming this down their throats. It’s part and parcel of this larger fight over how land in the West, especially public land, ought to be used.

That same dynamic I described earlier in answering why someone from Texas is interested in what happens in Yellowstone, that dynamic writ large has caused a lot of resentment in the West because historically, those public lands have been managed for resource extraction: timber, oil, gold, and coal. As the environmental movement became more popular, especially in the 1970s, limits started to be placed on what you could do on that public land. And if you’re the governor of Idaho and your constituents are cutting timber for a living, you resent that and feel like your future’s being taken out of your hands. That fight was going on long before wolves came along, and wolves became a chapter in it.

RIF: That’s fascinating. What surprised you most while you were writing?

NB: I didn’t realize how closely the wolf watchers were able to follow the stories of individual wolves. I mean, you go out there and you see these watchers standing on the side of the road behind their scopes. You look at the mountain they’re looking at; you can’t see anything. You look through your binoculars; you can’t see anything. And yet you can see they’re all really enjoying whatever it is they’re seeing. But they’re all very sweet, and if you ask them, “Can I look through your scope?” they’ll say yes. And it’s a revelation. It’s like looking at your dog on the other side of the living room, or in your backyard. You can see everything they’re doing. And if you put in the hours, eventually you’ll see something amazingly rewarding. It’s one of those pastimes that really delivers if you devote yourself to it.

RIF: In the reading, their personalities come across strongly. I loved the uncle figure who took time taking care of the pups and the more boisterous ones. It’s fascinating that you can see these personality traits from miles away.

NB: In the same sense that anyone who owns a dog or has owned more than one dog over the years will say that dogs have personalities—if you believe that’s true, then wolves have them, too. When you’re looking through the scope, you’re seeing this strange, exotic world. You can’t hear anything because they’re miles away, so it’s almost like watching old-timey movies, like looking back into the 19th century. But at the same time it’s oddly familiar because the animals you’re observing are behaving like dogs, which is the creature we’re closest to in the animal world. It’s this strange, sort of paradoxical feeling.

RIF: What was the hardest part about writing this book?

NB: It was difficult to gain the trust of people on both sides of the issue. In order to write the way I did, I had to persuade Lori Lineman and Rick McIntyre to let me read their notes and use them to write this book. O-Six meant everything to them, particularly to Rick. The wolves are his life; the notes he’s taken are his life’s work. Lori was extremely passionate, too. So they were reluctant; they wanted to make sure it was going to be a book that told O-Six’s story the way it deserved to be told. And on the other side, I interviewed someone who was a wolf hunter because I wanted to have his perspective in the story. He obviously had a lot to lose. At the time, the whole Cecil the lion thing was blowing up, and the potential backlash from allowing yourself to be portrayed in a book like this, he had no illusions about that. He just asked that I treat his story with respect and that I always be straightforward with him, and that’s what I tried to do.

RIF: What do you hope readers take away from this narrative? 

NB: I wanted it to tell a story and not just be a polemic about wolf hunting or an essay about wolves. I wanted people to reach the end of the book and, you know, there’s nothing like a good story to keep people turning pages. But the story itself is part of the book’s message.

If every wolf’s life was an amazing adventure like O-Six’s—and they are, there was nothing unusual about O-Six; she was just the wolf everybody was able to see—then what does it mean when any anonymous wolf in the Northern Rockies gets shot during hunting season, which hundreds do every fall? Or gets culled as a result of attacking livestock, which also happens hundreds of times every year? Does it change the way we think about those policy decisions we’ve made in the past, about whether or not we’re going to tolerate wolf hunting or culling on behalf of livestock? Does it cast them in a new light? Does it invite us to reconsider some of the things we’ve taken as established truth?

RIF: Thank you so much, Nate. Actually, now that I think about it, Blakeslee is an unordinary last name. 

NB: I’m glad you said that. You mentioned earlier about how many wolf metaphors are in our language. It’s full of them—so is every language in Europe—even though none of us have ever seen a wolf, and it’s because they were everywhere in the 19th century. I knew my name, Blakeslee, came from a medieval-era village in the English Midlands. But what I didn’t know is that in medieval times, the village was called Blackoldslee, not Blakeslee, and that the word is a shortened form of an Old English phrase that means “black wolf’s clearing.” So my family’s named after a black wolf that lived in a clearing in the English Midlands about 1,000 years ago.

NATE BLAKESLEE is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly. His first book, Tulia, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Texas Institute of Letters non-fiction prize, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2005. The Washington Post called it one of the most important books about wrongful convictions ever written. He lives in Austin, Texas with his family.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.