Book Review: The Reign of Wolf 21 by Rick McIntyre
Reading format: Library hardback
Content warnings: blood
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Rick McIntyre, a former National Park Service employee, shares the tale of one of Yellowstone National Park’s most esteemed alpha males, Wolf 21. After the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, Wolf 21 quickly became famous among wolf observers. As leader of the Druid Peak Pack, he was known for his fairness, altruism, ferocity, and loyalty to his mate, Wolf 42.
McIntyre’s narrative of the lives of the Yellowstone wolves begins with Wolf 21’s courtship of Wolf 42. Wolf 42’s jealous sister, then alpha female of the pack, repeatedly interfered with their relationship. She was also known for her domineering and violent leadership style to keep her subordinates in check. These factors ultimately lead to a coup within the pack. At last, Wolf 21 and Wolf 42 were able to be together as the new leaders. The keen personalities and strong leadership of Wolf 21 and Wolf 42 lead to the rise of the Druid Peak Pack as the dominant pack within the park for years.
Though Wolf 21 is clearly a favorite, McIntyre writes about the lives of the Druids with scientific objectivity. Some presumptions are made based on familiarity with the pack. For the most part, though, McIntyre avoids attributing human emotions and characteristics to the wolves. The sequential account of events may seem monotonous at times; they are based on years of field notes, after all. But frequently interspersed throughout the chronology are nuggets of text that exemplify the strong leadership of Wolf 21 and Wolf 42.
McIntyre tells us of Wolf 21’s affinity for his pups, how he doted on injured pack members, and how he frequently let pregnant and nursing females first access to a meal. Wolf 21 was not doubt a fiersome opponent to his rivals. But he also had a more affectionate side that he expressed with his mate. The equal of Wolf 21 in every way, McIntyre writes about Wolf 42’s patience and intelligence. One fine example that stands out was her never-tiring perserverance to persuade some pups to cross a river by baiting them with sticks.
The biggest takeaway of this book, in my mind, is how extraordinarily intelligent wolves are. Even though the prologue of this book tells you how it will end, I still shed tears when the inevitable deaths of Wolf 21 and Wolf 42 occurred. McIntyre doesn’t delve too much into the positive environmental impacts of wolves on Yellowstone. Those impacts are equally important, though, to break down the negative narrative of wolves that we grew up with for decades. It’s fascinating how re-introducing an apex predator reshaped Yellowstone’s ecosystem for the better.
Because wolves had been absent from Yellowstone for so long, the elk population exploded. Hunters loved this because it not only meant more hunting opportunity, but it was also important for the local economy; outfitting expeditions for non-locals were a good source of income for residents. However, too many elk caused over-grazing, particularly regarding trees around streams. This over-grazing reduced the food source for beavers, bison, and moose and the habitat for birds.
Reintroduction of the wolves (along with continued hunting and predation by cougars and grizzlies) lead to fewer elk in Yellowstone, reversing the effects overgrazing had on the environment. The wolf population grew relatively large at one point, but eventually balanced itself out once the elk population decreased. (For what it’s worth, this book also cites research that, contrary to belief, grizzlies kill more elk than wolves.) I am just amazed how much effect the wolves have had in Yellowstone.
Anyway, I’ll get off my soap box of wolf admiration. But I highly recommend this book, along with Nake Blakelee’s American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West.