52 pages 1 hour read

Nate Blakeslee

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (2017) is a work of narrative nonfiction by journalist Nate Blakeslee. Blakeslee is a longtime contributor to Texas Monthly, covering criminal justice, politics, and the environment. His experience covering the latter two subjects are brought to bear in this story of the reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone Park. The book focuses on the wolf O-Six, documenting her struggle for survival against both rival animals and human opposition. American Wolf was a New York Times best seller and was shortlisted for the 2018 J. Anthony Lukas Prize. Page numbers in this guide correspond to the 2018 Broadway Books paperback edition.


American Wolf is set in and around the world’s first national park, Yellowstone Park. It covers a broad span of time, from the wolves’ reintroduction to the park in 1995 to a 2015 event to commemorate the two-decade anniversary of guide Rick McIntyre’s work there. However, the story focuses on the life of a wolf named O-six, particularly between 2009 and 2012.

At the start of this time period, O-Six is three and a half years old. She has struck out from her natal pack, essentially the story’s inciting incident, and now faces a huge challenge: To prosper, she must find a mate and establish her own pack, or else take her chances as a lone wolf.

Pedigree is on O-Six’s side. She hails from a line of powerful wolves, many of whom became alpha females in packs of their own. O-Six’s great grandmother was one of the Canadian wolves first introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 who birthed the alpha male of the Druid Peak Pack, one of the park’s most celebrated dynasties. Before their deaths and the pack’s eventual demise, Druid leaders 21 and 42 established the Lamar Valley as Yellowstone’s most hospitable wolf habitat.

By 2010, the Druids are a shadow of their former selves, suffering fluctuating numbers and an outbreak of mange. This allows O-Six to draw away two recently arrived young males, to form her own family. Wolf 755 becomes her mate, and his brother, 754, becomes a beta male in the nascent pack. Their union is keenly observed by the park’s most dedicated wolf-watchers: Rick McIntyre, a park guide; Laurie Lyman, a retired teacher and blogger; and Doug McLaughlin, an entrepreneur. The three are a tight-knit pack themselves and form the backbone of the park’s wolf-spotting community.

The formation of a popular new pack does little for the wolves’ reputation outside the pack. Hunters in the states surrounding the park—Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—are eager to kill several wolves each year to protect livestock and elk herds. One such hunter is Steven Turnbull from Crandall, Wyoming. He opposed the reintroduction of wolves but must wait patiently as a legal battle unfolds over Wyoming’s plans to manage wolves that roam outside the park.

In spring 2010, O-Six gives birth to her first pups and raises them in and around the Lamar Valley. She must fight off roaming bears and rival wolves to do so. But the real threat is from humans, as the first wolf-hunting seasons in Idaho and Montana yield dozens of dead animals from packs across the Northern Rockies.

A lawyer named Doug Hannold goes to court to fight the delisting of wolves as an endangered species in the region. Anti-wolf activists protest outside the courthouse, proving how polarizing the issue has become. Wolves are part of a budding culture war between different factions in America who see hunting as one of several issues that define their identity. This scrap unfolds during Barack Obama’s presidency. His response to the 2008 financial crisis and his plans for health care have to led to uproar from so-called Tea Party Republicans who are eager to slash public spending.

A judge backs Hannold’s argument and puts a stop to wolf-hunting in the Rockies. But Democrats, fighting a rearguard action in Washington, DC, use a budget bill to overrule the judge and greenlight wolf-hunting again. The move may sacrifice the Yellowstone wolves but could enable Democrats to hold on to the US Senate, if not the House of Representatives.

This looks to spell trouble for O-Six and her pack, now known as the Lamars. They have settled into the Lamar Valley proper and seem to be roaming farther east. One morning, Rick and Laurie see them in their nearby town of Silver Gate—at once a beautiful sight but an unfortunate omen. The Lamars look set to claim land as far away as Crandall as part of their territory.

By spring 2011, O-Six is ready to den again and expand her family. This should be exciting news for avid wolf-spotters like Rick. He takes meticulous notes in the hope of writing a book about the Yellowstone wolves. But the political situation and the specter of more wolf hunts looms over the park.

The fight over the wolves’ well-being grows detached from the science coming from the park. By 2011, researchers are seeing positive effects up and down the food chain, linked to the wolves’ reintroduction. But the debate over wolves beyond the park’s boundaries seems driven more by an ancient animus against wolves, rooted in history and myths about the animals. O-Six births more pups, but hunters gleefully kill other wolves in Idaho and Montana.

Inside the park, O-Six must also overcome an existential threat from other wolves. A pack known as the Mollies goes on a rampage after losing its alpha male and female in quick succession. They descend on the Lamar Valley, gradually hunting out the Lamars. O-Six is a vulnerable target because of her new pups, which limits her mobility. In a climactic fight with the Mollies, she uses all her cunning to escape them, and they eventually leave the Lamars’ territory. O-Six has proven equal to any threat the park can throw at her. She is an exceptional animal, beloved of the park’s many visitors.

Wyoming, though, is getting ready for its first wolf-hunting season, and that includes in nearby Crandall. Steven Turnbull has procured his hunting tag for the season, and he’s not the only one. In the aftermath of the Mollies’ rampage, the Lamars roam east toward the town. A visiting hunter tracks them on horseback and kills 754. His death devastates the wolf-watching community and even garners a little coverage on The New York Times website.

Worse is to come, though. The Lamars cannot stay away from Crandall. One night in December 2012, the pack returns to the area. This time, Steven Turnbull is waiting for them. He tracks the pack through the snow and lures out 755 and O-Six with a mock rabbit call. He lines up the pair in his sights, then opts to shoot dead O-Six. The Lamars howl long and loud for their fallen leader, but Turnbull eventually claims her carcass as a trophy.

The fallout from O-Six’s death is unprecedented. This time, the New York Times carries a much bigger story, which is rapidly syndicated around the world. O-Six’s life is celebrated in the media, and public opinion swings behind the Yellowstone wolves. The states near the park continue to hunt the animals, but President Obama rules out interventions on endangered species in a new budget bill.

The Lamar Pack falls apart and 755 struggles, chased off his territory by his daughters’ new male suitors. It takes him a while, but he eventually finds a new mate, which comes as a relief to Rick, the Lamars’ most dedicated fan. The main story concludes with Rick observing 755 as he and his new mate secure meat for their small brood of pups.