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The Ninemile Wolves.

By 1930, the American West had been scoured clean of wolves. They gave way under a campaign of extermination that lasted more than half century and employed meat laced with strychnine or ground glass along with bullets and traps. The animals wolves fed on--the bison, the deer, and the elk--had disappeared first. Ranging in their place across the West were sheep and cattle. Without question, wolves did turn to eating livestock sometimes. But the holy hatred with which they were regarded and the fervor with which they were killed meant that people and wolves were not going to be able to reach any sort of accomodation on the matter. "Until recently," Rick Bass writes in The Ninemile Wolves, "the score stood at Cows, 99,200,000; Wolves, 0."

But with hunting better regulated, elk and deer numbers have long since rebounded and begun rising with no end, or counterbalance, in sight. And over the last 15 years, lured by this abundance of prey, wolves have started to trickle down from Canada into Montana. Most stick to Glacier National Park on the border, but some are making forays into the rest of the state. Bass picks up the story with the first known pack in 60 years to establish a den and produce a litter of pups in Montana outside the park.

What these wolves discover is a West not quite sure it has changed its mind about them. Two successive families fall prey to disaster, caught in turf battles between state and federal agencies, shot by ranchers, or run over. "I keep wondering if Montana's big enough for wolves," says a saddened federal biologist who then answers the question.

"The state is big enough. Can the people in the state be big enough?"

The problem again is livestock depredation, or the fear of it, and the posibility of slightly fewer deer for hunters. Times have changed--wolves that do kill livestock can be tracked and caught with radio collars, helicopters, and dart guns, and funds are available to compensate ranchers for lost cows--but for many, one misstep on the part of a single wolf still cancels the right of the whole species to exist. "May we all never be judged by anything so harshly or held to as strict a life or unremitting of borders as the ones we try to place on and around wolves," Bass writes.

At the heart of the book is a scene in which Bass and two researchers follow the wolves' tracks through the snow as they weave in and out of one another, sometimes curling off in explorations here or there but always returning to that "braided stream" of footprints. Bass mimics those tracks in the crafting of his essay, taking up threads of history, science, politics, anecdote, and reflection, frequently disgressing but always returning to weave the elements together in a long strand that follows along behind the wolves "like the tail end of a comet."

Bass is a prominent short-story and nonfiction writer, and if his prose occasionally veers toward the breathless, it also often attains real beauty as he invokes wolves' pure love of movement, their elusiveness, endurance, tight-knit families, and formidable hunting prowess, their "great hearts." What draws him most to wolves, and come through most memorably in his book, is the mysterious "force...I have to call it spirit" he sees in them, which "we can extinguish...but we can never entirely control."

The Ninemile Wolves; paperback, $10.00, Ballantine Books, New York; hardcover, $22.95, Clark City Press, Livingston, Montana.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hedstrom, Elizabeth
Publication:National Parks
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:591
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