Running With the Pack
On one of the most successful ecological experiments of all time
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
September 5, 2017
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee; Crown, 320 pp., $28
In Colorado several years ago, I watched Temple Grandin hand-feed dried apples to six or seven young pronghorns in a pen. They displayed none of the easy greed you see among farm animals crowding the feed bucket. There was only an incalculable reluctance, which the apples and Grandin’s preternatural composure barely overcame. These weren’t tame pronghorns or tamed pronghorns or pronghorns on their way to becoming tamed. These were captive creatures who were tolerating, for a time, the presence of the only human who could get near them. You can imagine the wildness of pronghorns when you see them at a skittish distance in the sagebrush flats of Wyoming. Looking into that pen in Colorado, I felt like I was glimpsing the force field that made them wild, as they fed, with nimble lips, on dried apples extended from Grandin’s fingers.
But is a pronghorn wilder than a beaver? Is a beaver wilder than an elk? What about an elk and a magpie? Is the prey animal wilder than the predator, or vice versa? There isn’t really a scale of wildness, and we don’t usually talk about degrees of wildness, except, metaphorically, among humans. But there’s wild, and there’s wild. The pronghorns living in the Lamar Valley are untamable, essentially alien to us by nature. And then there is the wolf. Of all the creatures living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is the only animal that shares the bulk of its genes with a domesticated counterpart. Gray wolves and dogs differ in their mitochondrial DNA by less than one percent—far less than the difference (six percent) between wolves and coyotes.
And yet Yellowstone became discernibly wilder when wolves were reintroduced there in 1995, having been wiped out in the 1930s.
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Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of six books, including Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. He teaches creative writing at Yale University.