Maneuvers With Wolves
New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 1, 1997

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by Thomas McNamee.
354 pp. New York:
Henry Holt & Company. $27.50.

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN wolves howled menacingly. They laid waste to livestock. They slavered after troikas, hoping someone would drop out for lunch. They sped through the purple dusk, their green eyes hungrily devouring hapless, snowshoed trappers who would never see camp alive.

Not now. Today we hear a lot about the exemplary lives wolves live. They practice birth control. Their group howl is a family sing-along. They eschew sheep and cattle for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They keep ungulate herds healthy by preying only upon the old, the feeble or the crippled. Above all, we are to believe, wild wolves have never seriously attacked, let alone killed or eaten, an American citizen.

What could be more natural, then, in the environmental 1990s, than to go to Alberta, collect a couple of dozen or so gray wolves and set them down in Yellowstone National Park, America's 2.2-million-acre Garden of Eden, from which, Thomas McNamee tells us, Canis lupus had been expelled by 1926.

Whether, like Mr. McNamee, you think of it as an exalted environmental experiment or, like Western farmers and cattlemen, as the damned Government putting foxes among the chickens, or view it simply as a nutty idea, that is what happened in the winter and spring of 1995. Several accounts of the event have already been published. But in ''The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone,'' Mr. McNamee tells his version of the whole transaction, on the ground, in the air and beforehand in the courtroom. He is indeed a wolf lover but he also runs some cattle, and once served as president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group. His book poses a pair of what seem to me notably useful and nonpartisan questions: ''Could it be that our newfound love of the wolf is as irrational as our forebears' hatred? Could it be that the wolf wolf lovers love and the wolf wolf haters hate are both falsehoods?''

The book consists of brief journal entries that include flashbacks to courtroom hearings in 1994, which run to predictable extremes. Cattlemen and farmers fail to prove the unprovable - that the introduction of these wolves will do ''irreparable harm'' to their livelihood. A collection of the country's top wildlife experts and wolf biologists overwhelms them with stacks of environmental impact studies and assurances that wolves mainly eat only the ''prey image'' they carry from cubhood - elk if in elk country, deer if in deer country - and there are plenty of both, as well as bison, in Yellowstone. Besides (and this is one reason the project got off the ground) the Yellowstone imports are to be an ''experimental population,'' meaning they can be ''controlled'' (usually ''shot,'' Mr. McNamee says) by antidepredation teams. Ranchers can also shoot a wolf if they see it attacking livestock and be recompensed for any provable wolf kill.

When it comes to gathering the wolves themselves, the proceedings take on a ''Mission Impossible'' flavor. The Alberta wolves are snared (three choked to death) or dart-stunned from helicopters, stuffed into expensive aluminum carrying cases and outfitted with ear tags and radio collars. Once in Yellowstone, they find themselves in one of three large fenced areas, at Crystal Creek, Soda Butte or Rose Creek, where they are provided with individual doghouses (which they mostly don't use), as well as an array of sensors to monitor entrances and exits (a red fox got in and, as Mr. McNamee reports with some verve, ''the wolves ate him like a bonbon''). Road-kill deer are offered for dinner, and a big gate, closed initially, is soon opened so the wolves can run free.

Which they don't, at least immediately. This allayed the first fear of wolf experts - that the new arrivals would make a beeline back to Canada - but ushered in perplexity about why some of the new charges just seemed to hang around the pen area. There are many such questions. Why, for instance, once they do move out, does one pack tend to ''kill, snack and run,'' as Mr. McNamee puts it, killing an elk, gulping a few bites and moving on to a new kill, while others stay with a kill till the carcass is stripped clean?

The three initial packs are called Crystals, Roses and Sodas. The released wolves have numbers instead of names, and what with Mr. McNamee's timeouts for lively tirades, poetic descriptions, provocative homilies and mini-biographies of wolf experts like L. David Mech (not to mention the need to switch back and forth from group to group), it becomes a bit tricky to keep up with which wolf is which and even how many wolves there are at any given time. A few wolves emerge memorably. Especially Ten, a big and bold Rose Creek male who is the first out of the pen, the first to mate (conveniently, with Nine), the first to leave Yellowstone proper and the first to be shot - for no reason at all except the destructive idiocy of the shooter. (For safety, Nine and her pups, the first native-born wolves in Yellowstone for 65 years, have to be found and transported back to Rose Creek pen, where she raises them - much to the reader's relief.)

Thirteen is the only wolf to use a doghouse. Two hangs around the pen for weeks - no expert knows why. Three, a feckless Crystal male, develops a taste for sheep. An antidepredation team lifts him to a spot with no such temptations. But Three races back to sheep country, and this time the team is obliged to shoot him.

The original plan called for some 100 wolves (about 10 working packs) to be established within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem within three years. During the 18 months or so that the book covers, several more infusions came from Canada. Today the wolf count in Yellowstone stands at about 80, with 10 litters of pups this spring. Mr. McNamee regards the experiment as a considerable victory in the long struggle to see if wildness can ''persist in the heart of civilization.'' It will tell the experts more than anyone can yet guess about wolf impact on the local ecosystem and about wolf (and people) behavior vis-à-vis one another in an area rich in prey but invaded by three million visitors - and who knows how many snowmobiles - a year.

Mr. McNamee notes in passing some wolf ways that don't often get public attention, at least among the adulatory, often urban, crowd who wear wolf T-shirts. Wolves have an unfortunate proclivity for snacking on household pets, he notes. Some wolf packs make a specialty of attacking others and more or less wiping them out. Wolves, like other carnivores, begin eating their prey alive, a practice that can shock even when seen on television being done by crocodiles in Africa.

The book mentions a 22 percent increase in spring visitors in the park area where wolves are likely to be seen. Children who happen to see wolves chomping their way into a live and kicking elk will get an instant education about nature red in tooth and claw. But if I've read him right, Mr. McNamee figures all the above - and much more interaction as well - will be a valuable part of learning more about what we will have to know in a world where population rises appallingly and there is less and less room for people, let alone wildlife. He is, in any case, well aware of the irony involved in one of the world's most relentless and gifted killers being made a culture hero by a citified society in which lupine virtues - strict parental authority, cooperation, self-restraint, birth control and ruthless exile meted out to members of the pack who can no longer pull their weight - are so conspicuously lacking.

He also shows sympathy - rare among wolf lovers - for Western cattlemen, caught in an odd turnabout of history. Cattlemen and cowboys, he notes, ''displaced the bison for cattle and replaced the Indians with themselves. Now the cowmen have become the Indians. There is another invasion of the West - by people like me, and worse. The worse want every last cow off the range. They want wolves not only back but unconditionally protected, no matter what. They don't eat beef. Some of them won't wear leather shoes.''

For his part, he would not part with the cattlemen and cows. ''Think of cows, then, not as riparian stompers but also as nonviolent protectors holding back the bulldozers,'' he concludes. ''Cattle ranching is still the best means available of keeping the West's space open and its prairies unplowed. Ranches can simultaneously be elk range, bear pastures, mountain lion hunting grounds, waterfowl refuges, rare plant sanctuaries, eagle habitat. Subdivisions cannot.''

As for ''prey image,'' though the book does not happen to mention this, there are new, documented cases in remote corners of India where wolves have expanded the image to include human children. Mr. McNamee does report the sighting in Italy of a wolf dashing out of a Tuscan village with spaghetti trailing from its jaws. ''Wolves are survivors,'' he writes, with satisfaction.