The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstoneby Thomas McNamee
A New York Times Notable Book
The inside account of the environmental story of the decade Early in this century, U.S. government agents trapped, poisoned, or shot every wolf they could track down in and around Yellowstone National Park. By 1926, not one wolf was left alive. After generations of struggle between the wolf's friends and foes, the wolf was returned
A New York Times Notable Book
The inside account of the environmental story of the decade Early in this century, U.S. government agents trapped, poisoned, or shot every wolf they could track down in and around Yellowstone National Park. By 1926, not one wolf was left alive. After generations of struggle between the wolf's friends and foes, the wolf was returned to Yellowstone in January of 1995. Thomas McNamee chronicles the drama of the reintroduction, the political machinations behind it, and the harrowing details of the wolves' own lives. In his telling, it is easy to see why this saga has stirred the imagination of a nation.
"It has been sixty years, thirty wolf generations, since the last wolf pups were poisoned in the Yellowstone," writes McNamee (A Story of Deep Delight, 1990). Led by an activist group called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, of which McNamee is a past president, biologists successfully pressed to undo the destruction of this predator, which had played an essential role in the health of the Yellowstone ecosystem. That effort, he writes, involved a huge campaign to raise public awareness and to enlist the support of private individuals, and it worked. Interior Department hearings on reintroduction produced some 160,000 letters from across the country, "the biggest official citizen response to any federal action ever." Not all those responses were favorable, and much of McNamee's account is given to studying the divisive politics of reintroduction, in which environmentalists squared off against so-called Wise Use movement activists in court and on the streets. Those political debates heated up when fewer than a dozen wolves were finally released in Yellowstone National Park two years ago; not long afterward, one of them was shot down by a pair of local yahoos, one of whom served six months in jail for the crime. The surviving wolves have established themselves in their former habitat and appear to be thriving, although thanks to political pressure from opponents, federal support for the reintroduction program has shriveled. McNamee peppers his episodic narrative with asides about his travels in central Italy, where a similar reintroduction program is taking place, and looks at other efforts elsewhere in the US.
A good one-volume reference for fans of Canis lupus, although the story has been widely reported elsewhere, such as in Rick McIntyre's War Against the Wolf.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
February 14, 1994
An austere white stucco house with a roof of ochre tile stands amid theolive groves and vineyards of Chianti. Tight-furled cypresses file uphillalong a lane to other villas, other farms. The February sun hangs low in thesky, the icy tramontana slices in from Switzerland, but the grass is alreadygreen and the trees are in bud. Except for wisps of radio music broughtfrom the house on the transmountain wind, the landscape is silent and still.
Next to the tile-roofed house there stands a copse of trees in which apack of wolves is sleeping.
Lifting his antenna high, Edoardo Tedesco grins from beneath a slept-inhaystack of graduate-student hair. Tock, goes the receiver, sock. He hasfound his study wolves.
This is the ancient place of the wolf in our world: nearby, unknown.
"Excellent," says Tedesco. "The shepherds do not kill them yet."
In a swale of green shorn to velvet, a man smoking a pipe watches hissheep. A big white dog lies at his side, also watching. "This is the very oldguard dog of Italy, the Maremma," says Tedesco, "but these shepherdscome from Sardinia, where there are no wolves, and they don't know howto train the Maremma, and when the wolves come, the dogs run away."
But surely wolves prefer their natural prey? In Minnesota andnorthern Montana, hardly any livestock is lost to wolves.
Tedesco gives a sardonic smile. A graduate student in wildlife biologyat the University of Rome, he has been studying this pack in Tuscany fortwo years now. Wolf range has been expanding steadily for the past twentyyears from theprovince of Abruzzo in central Italy, a hundred and fifty milesfrom this pasture in the legendary winemaking region of Chianti, twelve milesfrom the city of Siena. These wolves are newcomers. "In the beginning, theystayed in the gorgesdense shrub vegetation, very good habitat for wild boar,roe deer, red deer." (The gentle-looking landscape here is riddled withvertiginous, almost people-proof slashes.) "But there were not so many wildprey, because of the poaching, and soon the wolves killed most of them, andthen they began killing sheep."
Not many, surely?
"Two or three thousand last year, killed in the province of Siena only.This alpha male, Alvio, is very clever, very hard to find. Now we have a radiocollar on him, and also on a subadult, a male, we call him Fulvio. Thirty,forty sheep this pack alone has killed in two years."
The shepherds tolerate this?
"In Italy the wolf is protected absolutely. The owners are compensated,ninety percent of the value, but this does not satisfy them. They tell me,`We are going to kill your wolves.'"
But the law!
That thin, sardonic, so Italian smile again.
The guard dogs go untrained, the shepherds oil their guns and trade forbiddenpoisons, the whole country has a long tradition of wildlife slaughter, thereis agriculture nearly everywhere, the human population has been dense forhundreds of years, many laws are deemed no more than wishful guidelines, thereis not one speck of what an American would call wildernessyet Italy haswolves.
Yes, the gray wolf, the wolf of lore and gore, the wolf that pulls downmoose in the Yukon, pounces on ptarmigan in the Siberian taiga, prowls forincautious goats at the edge of bedouin campsCanis lupus is alive and wellnot twenty miles from the Piazza Campidoglio, where the bronze wolf-mother ofRome suckles Romulus and Remus through the centuries.
In the half century since World War II, there has been a prodigiousflowering of education, industry, and prosperity in ItalyIl Boom, it iscalled. Italy is now one of the world's great industrial powers. Among theBoom's effects has been an exodus of Italians from the villages and farms tothe cities, and among the effects of that exodus has been reforestation of theland left behind.
Reforestation has made possible the recovery of remnant populations of thesmall roe deer, the large red deer (a cousin of our North American elk), andthe wild sheep known in French and Italian as mouflon. In a few high-mountainrefuges there are growing populations of chamois and ibex. There have alsobeen reintroductionsof native deer, exotic deer, mouflonwith varyingsuccess, depending on how extravagantly the local populace flouts the gamelaws. Wild boar, with their stupendous reproductive rate (up to ten young perannual litter) and their adaptation to a wide range of habitats, areflourishing. All these are good wolf prey, and more prey has meant more wolves.
New national parks and nature reserves have been designated. Acontemporary map of Tuscany, to take just that region as an example, shows anextraordinary patchwork of protected areasthe Parco Naturale delle AlpiApuane, coastal wetlands, great forests, wild rivers.
An increasingly urban and well-educated citizenry has insisted onenforcement of anti-poaching laws, especially in the more law-abiding north ofItaly. Many younger Italians have taken up the banner of conservation. Habitatloss has also been slowed by the declining birth rate of the Italians, whichis among the lowest in the world.
The contemporary wool and lamb industry is dominated by giganticoperations in New Zealand and Australia, where predators are largelynonexistent. Sheep production in Italy has been in decline since theIndustrial Revolution began. More recently, the decline has been accelerated bythe spread of universal mandatory education. In former times, the son of aTuscan shepherd had little choice in life but to be a Tuscan shepherd. Todayhe may be a banker, a computer programmer, a builder of Fiats in Turin, awaiter in Beverly Hills. A Tuscan country girl is still likely to devote heradulthood to home and family, but she too will probably do so far from whereshe grew up. Only in the remotest pockets of Italy do the ancient ways survivewith any real vitality in Sardinia, some places high in the Apennines, the farsouth. These are also, by no accident, often the places where wolves havepersisted through the centuries.
The wolves of Italy are astonishingly adaptable, and their adaptability maybe the direct result of human persecution. Centuries of trapping, poisoning,and gunning down have been tantamount to intense selective breeding. Thewolves with the slightest inborn recklessness are quickly removed from thepopulation, the survivors being wolves who can outwit their persecutors. Suchnon-natural selection may be why Italian wolves are smaller than theirAmerican or Russian cousins, less dependent on cooperative hunting, and muchless picky about their diet.
I have seen photographs of Italian garbage-can raiders with their fiercemouths trailing strands of spaghetti. In the fourteenth century, wolves dug upthe shallow graves of European plague victims. In the Middle East, wolvescower outside the towns, stoned by boys, with little more than the occasionaloutcast dog for a square meal. Wolves are survivors.
If in a given patch of habitat there is enough prey to feed only one wolf,one Italian wolf will live there alone. If there is only enough for two, twothere will be, sending their young to find better work elsewhereanother oldItalian tradition. Large packs are rare. Howling is rare. The modem Italianwolf can be as furtive, skulking, and cunning as the ancient wolf of legend.
There are wolves in Italy from the heel of the boot to the Alps. Some livein populations large enough to be self-sustaining. Many live in habitatsufficiently rich to support the traditional pack structure, in which an alphamale and alpha female preside over an extended family that hunts cooperatively,maintains an enduring territory, and howls in the nightbut human killingkeeps that luxurious style of life rare.
The wolves of Italy form what is known as a metapopulation, a population ofpopulations. Simple size is a critical factor in the long-term survival of anypopulation of living things, and a network of small populations can be just asviable as a single large population; interconnection is the key.
The Apennine mountain chain and other forest corridors have allowed thewolf populations of Italy to remain interconnected. The wolf's reproductiverate is high, and young wolves forced out of their families with the arrivalof new litters manage to find one another readily, probably owing to theirextraordinary sense of smell and their habit of scent marking, mainly withurine, wherever they go. A wolf can breed at the age of two, and in Italy thetypical litter size ranges from four to seven pups. A few subordinate,non-reproducing adults may be allowed to stay with the pack to help in therearing of pupsand these may hope for a vacancy at the top of the packhierarchy. Generally, though, there is a steady supply of dispersers leavinghome every year to join other packs or form new ones.
Since 1976, when legal protection began, the wolves of Italy have spreadfrom a few mountain enclaves into a wide range of habitats. There are wolvesin the shrubby coastal macchia of the south, some of them living on littlemore than garbage scavenged from village dumps. There are wolves in themountain forests all along the Apennines, some of them hunters of game, someof them raiders of livestock. There are wolves in national parks, wolves onfarms, wolves in suburbs. Although their most preferred habitat is remoteforest, Italian wolves occur in habitats that make a mockery of thecommonplace American presumption that the wolf is a creature only of thewilderness. Wolves have been seen, captured, or killed on the outskirts ofFlorence, Siena, Milan. From a low of perhaps a hundred in the earlynineteen-seventies, the wolf population of Italy may now exceed five hundredindividuals. Wolves overflowing out of Italy have even colonized the ProvencalAlps of southeastern France.
One of Italy's two largest centers of wolf population occurs in relativelylightly settled countrythe central Apennines east of Rome, including theAbruzzo National Park. The other is in the heavily peopled landscape ofTuscany and the Emilian portion of Emilia-Romagna. Small populations dot therural landscape, appearing and vanishing like will-o'-the-wisps. Yet even wherewolves are abundant in Italy, they can remain largely unknown. Ask a villagerat the foot of a mountain where a wolf pack is living, and he may well stareat you in astonishment. Wolves? Here? No, signore. Tell a housewife pickingout her fava beans and spring lamb in the Campo dei Fiori marketplace in Romethat she is standing within a half hour's bus ride of wolf country, and shemay indulge you with the condescending Roman smile reserved for bad childrenand idiots.
Extermination has been the lot of wolves in France, Germany, the Low Countries'Switzerland, Scandinavia. Yet wolves have survived in Italy, Spain, Portugal,the Balkan states, and Greece. In western Europe there is a north-southgradient of doom.
Luigi Boitani, of the University of Rome, is Europe's leading wolfscientist, and also Edo Tedesco's faculty adviser. Boitani has been studyingwolves in Italy and around the globe for more than twenty years, and he hasfound that wherever wolves occur, with the sole exception of a few Arcticislands devoid of human settlement, the principal determinant of wolf life ordeath is the behavior of the people living nearby. Boitani believes that thatbehavior is the product less of present necessity than of ancestral culture.
For many centuries before the nineteenth century, from the British Islesacross to Russia, from Scandinavia down to France and Germany, most northernEuropeans were nomadic herders. Resources were scarce in the cold north, andunevenly distributed. The herds had to keep moving. Human numbers were small,villages few. The distances the herds had to cover were so great that it wasimpossible for any herder to know the landscape in detail or to predict themovements of predators. Wolf attack could come anywhere, at any time. Therewas not much to be done but to kill every wolf you could.
By contrast, in the rich, warm south, herds could be maintained on a smallyear-round patch of pasture. Sedentary herding was the rule. Here people havelived for centuries on small farms or in villages adjacent to grazinglandalso almost always near rugged, densely forested mountains where wolvescan take shelter. The flock grazes year after year in the same places, and theherder knows every spring, tree, and thicket. He knows where the wolves live:up there in the winter, down here come spring.
There are patterns, habits, stability. The people share their information.The wolves move across the upper meadow in the early summer evenings. Theshepherd keeps his flock away from there. He gathers them close to the houseat night. He listens for trouble in his sleep. If you come, Mr. Wolf, I willkill you.
And the wolf replies: I leave you those places at those times, for I canhunt elsewhere or at night.
Generations pass. The patterns hold. The understandings endure. In timethere forms in both the wolf population and the human community whatLuigi Boitani calls an information lineage, an intimate knowledge of theirworld and its rules, passed down from families to their young through time.
"One of the commonplace names in Italy is Passo del Lupo," saysBoitaniWolf Pass. "A thousand years ago, the wolves crossed the road at thispoint. I can take you there today and you will see their tracks still."So what has happened in Tuscany?
"Disruption of the information lineage," replies Boitani. "The Sardinianshepherds, who are new to Tuscany, and the wolves, who are also newcomers,do not understand one another. That is the critical factor in wolf survival inhuman habitat: mutual understanding."
February 25, 1994
The yearling Fulvio lies dead beside the Via Cassia, run over by a car in thenight.
March 20, 1994
Alvio, the radio-collared alpha male, suddenly goes off the air. The wolf teamdrives the entire province of Siena in their battered Land Rover, rotating thetracking aerial out the window, listening for hours from the highest points,morning, evening, night. Nothing. They fly back and forth over all of southernTuscany. On Alvio's frequency there is only silence.
The researchers follow wolf tracks, they howl, they scan the landscapethrough telescopes. Nothing. But the shepherds are still complaining oflosses. The surviving members of the pack begin killing sheep in broaddaylight, in full view of the shepherds. Edo Tedesco knows that if Alvio werestill alive, he would keep them from taking such stupid risks. The alphafemale is probably dead now too.
June 15, 1994
No! She is alive, and so are two of the yearlings. Not only that, she has sixnew pups. The pack remains insanely visible. The wolf team watches them killa roe deer. Several times they see wild boar face the pack down. They see themother and the subadults regurgitating food for the pups.
July 31, 1994
The wolf team badly needs to get a radio collar on one of these wolves, butthree weeks of attempted trapping go by in vain. The wolves continue killingsheep. The shepherds are enraged. They believe that the wolf team is notstudying wolves but importing them; they know that these kids are under thecontrol of the archvillain Luigi Boitani, who is putting wolves all overItaly. One shepherd claims that the wolves killed two hundred of his sheep inone night. The research team is evicted from the house they have been renting,and nobody else in the area will rent to them. Their funding is not renewed.The Siena wolf project is over.
The blur of American timefrom wolf-packed wilderness to strip mall in theblink of a Roman eyetends to obscure the methodical deliberateness of theAmerican wolf's destruction. Control was never the object of the Americancrusade: only annihilation would do, first with simple atavistic fervor andultimately by government fiat. It is surely no coincidence that theextermination of the wolf in the United States was carried out by descendantsof Europeans of the north.
Imagine the incredulity with which an earlier American generation's bountyhunter would greet the idea that the United States government would somedayspend millions of dollars to restore the wolf to its ancestral range. Manyold-timers in the American West today are dumbfounded by the largely urbansentiment in favor of the wolf's return to Yellowstone
Once upon a time, the object of our identification was the placid grazer,the vegetarian victim, the sheep, the deer. Now, the savage predator, thecarnivorous victor, Tyrannosaurus rex, the wolf, is our self projectionandthis in a world in which meat eating (by humans) edges ever closer to thecategory of sin, a world in which the victim is otherwise. the image of ourcompassion and often of ourselves.
Could it be that our newfound love of the wolf is as irrational as ourforebears' hatred? Could it be that the wolf wolf lovers love and the wolfhaters hate are both falsehoods?
Tuscany whispers to Yellowstone, "You must find out for yourself."
THE LIFE OF BILLY WILDER
By KEVIN LALLY
Henry Holt and Company
Copyright © 1996 Kevin Lally.All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Thomas McNamee is a former president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the author of The Grizzly Bear, Nature First, and A Story of Deep Delight. He lives in San Francisco.
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Thomas McNamee has a knack for telling real life as a story. This book is a must for anyone who wants to know anything about the Yellowstone Wolf Reintroduction. The author provides a perspective that is seen so little of where wolves are concerned, a rancher in favor of the wolves. His account of the entire process is wonderful with behind the scene stories. Truly a great read, I finished it in four days.