Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves by Brenda Peterson
In the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, the lead character, voiced by George Clooney, repeatedly says, “I have a phobia of wolves.” Since the critter making this statement is a fox, and no pushover, it’s intriguing that when the inevitable interspecies reckoning comes at the end of the movie, it’s in the form of a salutation. By each raising paw-fists at a safe distance from one another, fox and wolf demonstrate solidarity among the four-legged predator set, as they both must coexist with the unpredictable human set.
Wolf Nation concentrates on wolf and human interactions. For example, with regard to New Mexico and the Mexican gray wolf — one of the most highly endangered wolf subspecies — author Brenda Peterson narrates a poignant history and manages not to oversimplify the question: protect or eradicate? It’s clear that the author is thoroughly pro-wolf. For 20 years she has been a strong, compassionate voice in the ongoing fight to stabilize wolf habitats in North America, and readers are quickly made aware of her position.
Peterson uses the work of conservationist, philosopher, and author Aldo Leopold as one of her touchstones. Leopold’s perception of wolves went through a profound alteration. In fact, his famous change of heart brought him from being an “antiwolf zealot” who built a powerful anti-wolf alliance in 1915 (it still exists) to an “astute wolf advocate,” according to Peterson. The author admires Leopold’s attitude-change trajectory largely because it was observationand science-based.
Intensifying awareness of the wolf’s complex place in wildlife management led, in 1995 and 1996, to the Fish and Wildlife Service introducing 34 gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park. The results of this move were stark and quick. As the park’s ecosystem began to get back into balance, and as wolves proliferated, they became an attraction that brought new visitors to the park. Much of the ground Peterson covers has already been explored, including through work by those who have studied over time the fate of the wolf population of Yellowstone.
But the author sheds light on more recent findings. For instance, although 68 percent of natural wolf deaths in the park result from inter-pack fights, wolves often try to rescue pack mates and have shown themselves capable of loyalty and empathy. Peterson broadens the existing wolf-behavior knowledge base through well-informed discussions of the pivotal effect that wolves have on wild ecosystems, the increasingly sophisticated study of wolf biology, and not only why wolves howl but what they might be saying.
It’s easy enough to focus on some Western ranchers calling wolves “illegal immigrants” and profit reducers, who apparently see evil when they look at lupine creatures. The author also notes opposing views such as that of indigenous people who are inclined to see the world from the wolf’s perspective, recognize the “wolf nation” as a sovereign tribe, or consider the wolf a spiritual guide. Peterson moves beyond these competing frames of reference by connecting the way wolves are perceived and treated with the dire environmental effects that arise as humans and wildlife share more terrain. Her account of the fate of wolves in Alaska is dismaying in this regard, as she makes a strong case that the state’s frontier is a “nightmare” because of “an endless siege, manipulating all wildlife to inflate game herds for hunters.” Even President Obama’s move in 2016 to ban aerial hunting of wolves in Alaska still allowed them to be hunted in the state’s 16 wildlife refuges, just not from the air. And in the current political environment, change contrary to wildlife comes quickly. On April 3, President Trump signed H.J. Res. 69, a joint U.S. House and Senate resolution nullifying those Obama-era regulations that banned use of “predator control” hunting methods on the 76.8 million acres of federally protected national preserves across Alaska.
Although this development occurred shortly before Peterson’s book was published, her overview of the last few decades of “lethal control” remains a helpful source of reference about where the longterm outcome of such state policies will lead the country. In Peterson’s view, there will be a reckoning in the years ahead of the balance between predators and prey, animal-rights activism and food production, and other competing interests.
Despite the ups and downs experienced by wolf advocates, Peterson is confident enough to say “small advances grow bigger with each forward swing.” But her main achievement is to indicate that any balance at all is delicate indeed and that competing forces may topple it at any moment, as H.J. Res. 69 proved. Peterson makes the case that wildlife managers must build a clear-headed, realistic, consistent wolf plan and conservation ethic for the complicated 21st century, as wolf recovery is a long game. Mr. Fox himself might agree. — Patricia Lenihan