A true story of survival and obsession in the west
Oneworld Publications, 2017, 336 pages
Pbk £9.99 ISBN 978-1786073129
Review by Steve Carver
In reflecting on the book I am minded to take the opportunity to draw the obvious parallels between our story here in the UK and that told by Blakeslee as he follows the return of wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the inevitable conflicts that has created.
First the book. “Gripping” (Atwood). “Inspired” (Humble). “Superb” (New Statesman). “Extraordinary” (The National). So say the jacket notes from the usual high profile readers. It is all these things, deftly telling three stories in one.
Firstly the book’s main protagonist is O-six, the eponymous alpha female of the book’s title. She stares out at you from the book’s cover with piercing eyes of ‘green fire’ that are unmistakably wolf.
Second is Rick McIntyre, US National Park Service employee, maverick, obsessive wolf-watcher and defender of wild nature. I met him once a long time ago in the Lamar Valley, where much of the book is set, as I too tried to catch a glimpse of these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back it is obvious who the tall chap with the bright yellow Nissan and fancy spotting scope was.
Third is Steve Turnbull, the hunter, and eventual killer of O-six. His name has been changed to protect his identity out of fear of reprisals, for as the book progresses, this particular animal comes to symbolise the uneasy and at times vicious exchanges between the people on either side of the wolf debate; all unbeknownst to O-six, the “most famous wolf in the world”.
Like any good story-teller, Blakeslee weaves the story of all three into a dramatic edge-of-the-seat tale of the battle for survival, family loyalty and the inevitable differences that arise between the main actors in this wilderness play. No spoilers here but O-six rises to be top-dog, leads her pack to dominate the fabled and blessed territory of the Lamar Valley, is watched and followed eagerly by McIntyre and his band of wolf-addicts and is ultimately shot dead by Turnbull. Beyond the dynasty of wolves, the back story is that of conflict, not just between rival wolf packs, but between rival human interests. These are the intense interpersonal battles between government officials, politicians, the national park service, their lawyers, ecologists, ranchers, hunters and joe-public that arise when nature clashes with humanity.
This brings us neatly back home.
Whilst some of us dream of the eventual return of the wolf to these shores, we currently struggle with a stream of minor (at least by comparison) human-wildlife conflicts. White tailed eagle, pine marten, beaver and hen harrier are our O-six. Mark Avery, Chris Packham and Roy Dennis are some of our Rick McIntyres. I could name names but there are characters from the tweed and shot gun brigade who represent our Steve Turnbulls. Caught in the middle are the public and the farmer. The public that clamours for a wilder British countryside, and the farmer who just wants to get on with making a living by putting food on our plates. Blakeslee carefully describes the uneasy alliance between rancher and hunter, each concerned with different goals; the rancher with predation of his livestock and profit margins, the hunter with having enough elk to shoot and meat to fill his freezer. And yes, they are mainly men. Despite their differences, they share a common enemy in the wolf. And so too with our countryside, long extirpated of its top predators, we have created an otherwise benign landscape in which now even the smallest beast born “red in tooth and claw” is seen by some as a threat or inconvenience. That said, I maintain a level of respect for our Turnbulls, those who know their land and its wildlife and hunt with respect and purpose. Less so for ‘those who shoot’ for pleasure and the impact that their ‘sport’ has on our countryside.
Ultimately Blakeslee’s story is not just one of conflict, but one of coexistence. How rival wolf packs share the wider landscape and shape ecosystems, how the seemingly at-odds goals of farming, hunting, conservation and tourism can alight on common ground, and how politicians just seem to stumble around making a mess of things. Strong, principled individuals with a commitment to a wider good are the key to establishing truce and balance. So it is with Rick McIntyre and O-six, and in his own way, Steve Turnbull. While Nate Blakeslee is the bard, these three are the heroes in this book. As we look to our own battles, we inevitably side with our own heroes. Who they are depends on your interests and goals, but in the final analysis common insight and collaboration are necessary if we are to move on.