Wolf Na­tion: The Life, Death, and Re­turn of Wild Amer­i­can Wolves by Brenda Peter­son

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Brenda Peter­son, Da Capo Press, 292 pages

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

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