In 2012, “the most famous wolf in the world” was shot by a trophy hunter outside the sanctuary of Yellowstone National Park. She was known as ’06, and her death caused an international outcry comparable to the killing of Cecil the Lion in 2015. It also led to a new awareness of the plight of wolves and demands for greater protection, as Nate Blakeslee explains in his new book American Wolf. [Find out why wolves are so polarizing.]
Speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, Blakeslee explains how the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone sparked a renaissance of other species, from bald eagles to beavers; why the fight over wolves is part of a larger struggle about who should control public land; and why the hunter who killed ’06 feels no remorse. [See photos of wolves taken by a “carcass cam.”]
COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE
The central character in your book is ’06 (called 832F by researchers). Give us a portrait of this amazing creature.
’06 was the alpha female of one of the most visible packs in Yellowstone National Park. She first came to the wolf watchers’ attention in 2009, when she was a lone wolf. Wolves have to leave their natal packs to make their way in the world, find a mate, and establish a territory.
She had been wandering for quite some time when she was spotted in the area of the park known as the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone’s wolf-watching mecca. They spotted her mating with a number of different males, but never settling down. She drew their attention as a wolf that had a lot of moxie and was very adventurous.
It’s dangerous for wolves to wander like that, trying to find a territory. Most of them end up going back to their natal pack or being killed by rival packs. But she had a knack for avoiding trouble and was very socially adept and skilled at navigating territorial rivalries.
Wolf watchers described her as a “once-in-a-generation hunter.” The wolves in the northern Rockies eat mostly elk, which is in the deer family but is an enormous animal. A white-tailed deer weighs around 150 pounds. Elk can get up to 700 pounds, which makes them 5-6 times heavier than the wolves chasing them.
Every time a wolf chases an elk it risks its life, because they are frequently gored or kicked. It usually takes an entire pack to bring down an elk.
But ’06 developed a knack for taking them down by herself. She was unusually large for a female, about 100 pounds, and unusually powerful. She also had very attractive colouration, with a sort of owl-like mask across her eyes, which also made her stand out.
Wolves are incredibly polarizing. Describe the two sides and their opposing views.
At the time that wolves were brought back to the Northern Rockies it was an extremely controversial decision. Ranching is big business. The ranchers’ ancestors were the ones who hunted out the wolves in the first place and they didn’t want to see them come back.
Guided elk hunts are also big business in the northern Rockies. The area east of Yellowstone known as Crandall is considered one of the best elk hunting spots in the world, with 8-9 guide services. People come from all over the country and guides can charge thousands of dollars per hunt. They knew that when the wolves came back there would be fewer elk and their livelihood could be threatened.
On the other side, you have wolf advocates, environmentalists, and biologists. They knew Yellowstone was badly out of balance, with far too many elk and prey animals because all the predators had been hunted out 70-80 years ago. They wanted to restore this ecosystem to the balance it had before Europeans came and hunted wolves.
After wolves were reintroduced, a new constituency of eco-tourists and wolf watchers also arose. Guide services leading people to watch elks and wolves sprang up and became a business in their own right. The battle between these two rival constituencies was coming to a head exactly when ’06 was rising to prominence.
When wolves returned to Yellowstone, they reduced the elk population. Streamside vegetation revived, beavers returned, and fish flourished. - PHOTOGRAPH BY RONAN DONOVAN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
“Trophic cascade” is the term used for the effects of an apex predator, like a wolf, on the landscape. Explain what that means—and describe how the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone led flora and fauna to flourish.
When they brought wolves back, it quickly changed and improved the landscape in ways that even the biologists didn’t anticipate. First and foremost, Yellowstone had way more elk than it could reasonably accommodate. Wolves brought that number back down to what it historically had been prior to Europeans arriving in Yellowstone.
They also began to see other species flourishing. The elk were no longer able to gather in the valleys in huge numbers and browse at their leisure; they had to be much warier and spend more time at higher elevations.
One of the effects was that streamside vegetation began to rebound. Aspen and willow returned, which in turn encouraged beavers to return to the park, as willow is their main food source. Beavers change the profile of a river, making it deeper by creating dams and pools, which in turn is healthier for fish.
Wolves also reduced Yellowstone’s coyote population, which was the densest in North America. Because of this, the rodent population had been kept artificially low. Once the wolves started to kill off some of the coyote population—not to eat them but to defend their own territories—there was a huge rebound in the rodent population.
As a result of that, other animals that eat rodents also rebounded, like large birds of prey, raptors, foxes, and badgers. The renaissance of all these species was a direct result of restoring the top predator.
A wolf pack prowls Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park. - PHOTOGRAPH BY RONAN DONOVAN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
You write, “wolves were just the latest flashpoint in a fight that had been simmering in the West for decades. The real struggle was over public land.” Give us some background—and explain how Trump’s election may affect the situation.
Vast stretches of the American West are owned by the federal government. This means that policies are made in Washington, not in the state capital of, say, Idaho, Wyoming, or Montana, the states that surround Yellowstone. This has led to resentment over the years, especially as the environmental movement became more popular and Washington became more responsive to it.
Some of the traditional uses of land in the West, like logging, mining, hunting, and cattle ranching, represent very powerful interests, so the defining political struggle of the last generation became who should set policy and what ends public lands should be used for. It became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, with Western legislators rising up against what they saw as over-reaching bureaucrats in Washington.
It may be too soon to tell what effect Trump’s election will have. Western senators and congressmen have always been very powerful in Congress and have been able to get their way. Many opposed wolf reintroduction. They didn’t win that one but they got important concessions when wolf reintroduction was imposed.
There is certainly concern about Trump’s secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, who has aligned himself with the extractive industries that have dominated politics in the West. He has also caused controversy by saying he’s going to reassess recent allocations of public land, for things like national monuments.
’06 was eventually killed by a hunter outside the perimeter of Yellowstone. You ended up tracking down the man who shot her. Did he tell you why he did it—and whether he felt any remorse?
It’s against the law in Wyoming for a government official to reveal the name of a person who’s shot a wolf, or the location where that wolf was shot, in order to protect that person’s privacy because it’s a controversial thing. His name had never appeared in any of the newspaper accounts of ’06’s death but I was able to locate him in Crandall, Wyoming.
It’s a very small community up there, everybody knows everybody, and to my surprise, he was willing to give me an interview. I knew readers would want to know what kind of person would shoot an animal like this, and why.
At his request, I refer to him in the book as Steven Turnbull (not his real name). He’s a middle-aged hunting aficionado, who spends as much time fixated on elk as the wolf watchers in the park on wolves. He’s built his life around hunting. I compare him to a ski bum but with a rifle and a bow and arrow instead of skis or a snowboard. [Laughs]
He and many other people in Crandall felt that bringing wolves back was a mistake because it resulted in a drastic decline in the number of elk immediately adjacent to Yellowstone. The reason Crandall has always been so popular is because that’s where Yellowstone’s elk come in the winter when it gets too cold and snowy to live in Yellowstone. That makes it easy to get a trophy elk. But after reintroduction, it became much harder.
Turnbull didn’t know he was shooting the world’s most famous wild animal or that it was a collared Yellowstone wolf. In winter, from a distance, it’s difficult to see the collars because the wolves' coats are so thick.
But he was excited to shoot a wolf in that first legal hunting season in Wyoming. He considered it to be the pinnacle of his career as a trophy hunter to be able to shoot an animal that nobody had been able to legally shoot for a very long time. He also felt he was doing a service to his community. He said what he did was perfectly legal and he would do it again.
He’s not ideologically anti-wolf as many people in the area are and you would expect a hunter like him to be. He told me he thought they were fascinating creatures and had a place in the landscape. But he resented the lower number of elk. In our last interview, he told me that for the first time in his life he did not get a tag to shoot an elk. He was extremely resentful of that and one of the last things he said to me was, “I’m against wolves, I want to make sure that’s clear.”
What inspires you most about wolves? And what more can be done to protect them?
There have been many books written about the politics of how wolves ought to be managed. I wanted to write a book with a narrative through-line, which follows the life of this one wolf in novelistic detail. Part of the point of the book is that every wolf’s life is like this, not just this one wolf who became famous. Every wolf’s life is an adventure story.
As to protection, there are now hunting seasons in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, although wolf advocates have not given up on the idea that, through legal action, they might be able to return them to the endangered species list. Another front in the fight to protect wolves is in the upper Midwest around the western Great Lakes area where some state legislators would very much like to have a wolf-hunting season.
Wolves are beginning to spread out of their core area in the Northern Rockies into California, Oregon, Washington, and possibly even down into Colorado. So the next front in the fight is whether wolves will be protected in those areas or whether they’ll be taken off the endangered species list throughout the lower 48. That’s a battle that is going on right now in Congress.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Lead image: A young grey wolf stalks through the snow. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s - Photograph by Barrett Hedges, National Geographic Creative.