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


Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves (2017) by Brenda Peterson is about the history of wolves in the United States, their reintroduction, and their controversy. After interviewing experts, stakeholders, and scores of data, Peterson concludes that, besides domestic dogs (on whom poisons intended for wolves are tested), taxpayer-funded institutions kill thousands of wolves, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, bobcats, river otters, foxes, hawks, and beavers annually, under auspices that not supported by research and are under the same institutional umbrellas as organizations charged with wildlife protection.

A large portion of the book describes the cult-like undercurrent of people who have flocked to Yellowstone National Park to observe wolf reintroduction and to follow pack's soap opera-like happenings. For example, some fans have given wolves names beyond their scientific designations, like “Cinderella,” who was aptly named because of how horribly her family treated her. When Cinderella tried to make her own den, her tyrannical sister, “Number 40,” tracked her down and attacked her. Cinderella did not defend herself. She submitted to her sister, then abandoned her den. Biologists wondered if Number 40 killed Cinderella’s litter or if Cinderella even had pups. However, when Number 40 went on to birth her own pups, she received no help from her siblings. Cinderella, on the other hand, flourished. “As in human families,” Peterson said, “eventually there is often a comeuppance for sibling cruelty” (p. 65).

Biologists are learning things about wolf behavior that doesn't just add to current research, but in some instances, upends previous interpretations. The female leader, for example, makes big choices for the pack, like when to travel, to rest, and to hunt. Healthy packs hunt animals that can outrun wolves, like elk and deer, not livestock. In fact, depredation, or the killing of livestock, is usually a sign of an unhealthy pack, like one where an alpha was recently shot or trapped, or of a lone wolf, who lacks the support and protection of a group and has to find food that can be killed more sloppily. If there is little prey, the alpha female and male – who are usually the only ones in a pack to breed – will decide not to breed. When they do breed, the whole pack raises the pups. Each member has a place in the pack hierarchy, and the group's survival is dependent on fidelity.

On the flip side, there are people who proudly shoot wolves and are against reintroduction. Peterson digs into this. I didn’t realize until reading this book how public lands in the western United States are controlled and utilized, and how deep hostility toward wolves runs in some animal husbandry circles. Peterson paints hopeful descriptions of communities once polarized by their stance on wolf reintroduction, but now coming together, validating neighbors' concerns, sharing new research and updated methods, and ultimately shouldering the responsibility of reshaping their ecosystems together.