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THE RETURN OF THE WOLF TO YELLOWSTONE by Thomas McNamee;
Henry Holt; $27.50, 352 pages | BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

In the Yellowstone Wolves' Pawprints

May 05, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This book tells three stories with varying degrees of skill. The most important, and the best told, is the title story: how wolves came back to Yellowstone National Park almost 70 years after the last of them had been exterminated--shot, trapped and poisoned--by U.S. government agents in 1926.

In January 1995, federal agents of a different stripe caught 14 wolves in Canada, where canis lupus is still plentiful. Drugged, tagged and given medical exams, the wolves were flown to Yellowstone, held in pens for a few weeks to get acclimated, and released into the park's Lamar River Valley, which teemed with herds of elk, deer and bison.

Then the humans held their breath. Had the forced relocation traumatized the wolves? Would they settle in Yellowstone or try to flee back to Canada across Montana ranges? Would they slaughter livestock--the prime fear of groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which had bitterly fought the plan?

Thomas McNamee (whose previous books include "Grizzly Bear" and "Nature First") puts us into the scientists' spotter planes and behind their binoculars during the wolves' critical first spring in Yellowstone. His day-by-day account is suspenseful and often poetic. The wolves, identified by numbers, take on personalities as distinct as their human friends and foes.

No. 2, a shy pup, hangs around the pen long after his release--to the scientists' consternation--but his inbred caution later serves him well. Bold No. 10, a 122-pound alpha male, wanders out of the park into Montana and is slain illegally by a hunter. While authorities, following radio-collar signals, close in on the killer, scientists race to save the dead wolf's mate, No. 9, and her eight newborns, who can't survive without their father's help.

McNamee is a cattle rancher in southern Montana and, therefore, he's distrusted, he says, by some hard-core environmentalists. He's also a former president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a group that lobbied for the wolf's return, so he's also viewed as a traitor by those of his neighbors who are caught up in the Sagebrush Rebellion.

He understands the "openhearted decency" of the cowboy ethic, the "myth and style and glory and honor" that compensate for the drudgery and uncertainty of ranching, the "dark, deep and real" fear that federal protection of wolves is just another threat to independent Western ways.

*

But it's clear that McNamee's real heroes are on the other team--Ed Bangs, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery team for the Northern Rockies; Mike Phillips, the National Park Service official who led Yellowstone's part of the project; Renee Askins of the private Wolf Fund; Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife; and wolf biologists Dave Mech, Doug Smith and John Weaver.

He credits them with a compromise that bent the rules of the Endangered Species Act to allow ranchers to kill wolves that attack livestock, saying it was the only practical way to get Yellowstone's former "top predator" back into the park. A strict kill-no-wolves policy, he argues, would have aroused the opposition and doomed the project.

In contrast, McNamee has little but scorn for individual enemies of the wolf, from the killer of No. 10 to the Wyoming, Idaho and Montana congressional delegations, which he says are in cahoots with the livestock industry and pander to right-wingers. As a result, the second story he tells--about the political struggle behind the scientists' work in the field--is unavoidably one-sided.

The third story comes to us in fragments--the evolution of McNamee's thought. He recalls the destruction of wildlife habitats in Tennessee when he was a boy. He describes interactions among people, animals and plants in the "largest remaining essentially intact ecosystem in the temperate zones of the Earth"--the 16 million acres centered on Yellowstone Park. He offers a model of conflict resolution to help the environmental movement become less elitist.

Why, he asks, did wolves vanish in the American wilderness when they survived in densely populated Italy? "Social attitudes," he answers, rather than legal prohibitions. A change of heart is needed. "Yellowstone and Tuscany have taught us that we, even ranchers, can live with the wolf, and the wolf can live with us."

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