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American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

In 2006, a wolf was born in Yellowstone National Park. Named O-Six, she would grow into a fierce fighter, doting mother, and merciful leader. She’d be beloved by the park’s wolf watchers and a favorite of tourists who flocked to the park hoping to catch sight of her. Upon her death, she would be celebrated in the New York Times as “the most famous wolf in the world.”

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by award-winning journalist Nate Blakeslee is a riveting account of O-Six’s life and untimely death. It is also the story of humanity’s timeless attempt to bend nature to its will, no matter the cost.

The backdrop of American Wolf is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, beginning in the mid-1990s. It was a move heralded by scientists and conservationists and loathed by the hunters and ranchers who hunt and farm in the communities surrounding the park. In a case of unintended consequences, the reintroduction project was made necessary by a campaign begun in the 1800s, to kill off the country’s wolves, a campaign so successful that by the 1920s, the wolf population in the continental United States had been decimated. The last two pups believed to be born in Yellowstone were killed by park rangers in 1926.

This mass slaughter occurred in the name of wildlife management, a science that, Blakeslee writes, was in its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Park officials believed—inaccurately it turned out—that killing the wolves would preserve the park’s prey population. “They didn’t realize that wolves and elk had coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run just as fast as the wolf but no faster… The massive size of the moose, the nimbleness of the white-tailed deer, the uncanny balance of the bighorn sheep—the architect of these and countless other marvels was the wolf.”

With wolves absent from Yellowstone, the park’s ecosystem was thrown off balance. “[The] ungulate population in the park exploded, and the quality of the range quickly began to deteriorate. Over grazed hillsides eroded, and stream banks denuded of woody shrubs began to crumble, damaging prime trout habitat. Elk browsing at their leisure, undisturbed by predators, decimated stands of young aspen and willow. Too many animals on the landscape brought starvation and disease.”

The goal of the Wolf Project was to restore the park’s ecosystem, and it has—beyond even its most ardent advocates’ expectations. But through the years, the debate over the wolves’ presence hasn’t abated. It has grown more vitriolic as wolves, wandering beyond Yellowstone’s borders, prey on ranchers’ livestock and kill the elk hunters prize. Wolves, Blakeslee writes, had become “one of those polarizing issues like abortion or gun control or war in the Middle East, about which the country [can] not seem to reach a consensus.”

It is in this hostile environment we meet O-Six and the wolf watchers who, dawn to dusk, 365-days a year, chronicle the lives of Yellowstone’s wolves. Among the watchers is naturalist Rick McIntyre, the park’s unofficial wolf expert and the person who has likely watched more wolves than “anybody in the history of humanity.”

McIntyre, along with several other wolf watchers, shared with Blakeslee more than a decade’s worth of notes on generations of Yellowstone’s wolves, notes that capture every aspect of wolves’ lives from their personalities to their way of life—a way of life that, McIntyre has come to believe, makes wolves more like humans than any other species on earth. From these notes, and dozens of interviews with people on every side of the issue—including the hunter who would come face-to-face with O-Six in 2012—Blakeslee has crafted a sweeping multigenerational narrative that will have readers holding their breath, reaching for tissues, and rooting for the wolves.

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Readers who would like to see photographs of O-Six and many of the wolves whose stories are recounted in American Wolf, are encouraged to visit the website of award-winning wildlife photographer Jimmy Jones.

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Submission window is now open for the 4th annual Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature

Now in its fourth year, The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature is now open for submissions of published and unpublished manuscripts, including novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essay collections..

The 2017 prize will be judged by New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Balcombe.

The winner will receive a cash award of $1,000 and a four-week residency at PLAYA. The submission deadline is September 30, 2014. For complete writers’ guidelines, click here. All unpublished manuscripts entered for the Siskiyou Prize will be considered for publication.

New environmental literature” refers to literary works that focus on the environment, animal protection, ecology, and wildlife. The prize seeks work that redefines our notions of environmentalism and sustainability, particularly when it comes to animal protection. The award isn’t for books about hunting, fishing, or eating animals—unless they are analogous to a good anti-war novel being all about war. Under these basic guidelines, however, the prize will be open to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction with environmental and animal themes.

The Siskiyou Prize is named for the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California and southern Oregon, one of the most diverse eco-regions in the world. Considered a global center of biodiversity, the Klamath-Siskiyou region is an inspiring example of the importance of preservation.

For more information, click here, or visit the Ashland Creek Press submissions page.

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Our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe

We are thrilled to announce that our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe.

Jonathan’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, an extraordinary journey underwater that reveals the vast capabilities of fishes. He is also the author of the books The Exultant Ark, Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Use of Animals in Higher Education.

Jonathan has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, and has published more than 50 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection. Formerly department chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University and senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Jonathan is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. Learn more at jonathan-balcombe.com.

This year marks our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize, and we are delighted to be offering a $1,000 prize and a four-week writing residency thanks to the generosity of our amazing prize partner PLAYA. All manuscripts submitted for the prize will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press.

Please visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details about the prize — submissions open September 1, 2017. We look forward to reading your work!

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Thinking About Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene

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The anthropocene is the proposed geologic term for the period in which humans have made a significant impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystems.

It’s not a term without controversy however, which I learned as I read the first essay in Thinking about Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene. Susan Rustick writes:

What will my canine companions think if the Working Group on the Anthropocene makes an initial proposal that our current epoch be called the Anthropocene? What will the elm tree sense or the aronia bushes? What clarion call or trumpet of death will be heard by the Whooping Crane or the deer that sleep in prairie? Should the designation of the geological epoch acknowledge only humans and not all life on earth? I argue that the proposed name “Anthropocene” is comparable to the experience of Narcissus, peering at his own human reflection in the pond.

She makes a very good point. To insert a species that has resided on this planet for a geologic blink of an eye into the geological timeline is a bold move. Rustick rightfully questions why all humans must be blamed for climate change when it’s really just a small percentage of the human population (we know who we are) who have done the damage. And what of the rest of the residents of this planet? Rustick mentions “human exceptionalism” — a term that pretty much sums up our current relationship with our non-human companions.

This book, a collection of a dozen scholarly chapters that address various aspects of the anthropocene and human/animal relationships, is fascinating. I should stress that this is a scholarly book, so some of the chapters were quite dense with footnotes and references to Aristotle and Descartes and other thinkers that we are still coming to terms with today.

But I think anyone in an animal studies programs will see this book as a “must read,” because it speaks to the challenges animal rights activists face in raising awareness of animal issues. Such as conflict between humans and wolves, which is addressed by Martin Drenthen, who writes:

A recent study found that today Europe as twice as many wolves at the United States, despite its being half the size and more than twice as densely populated. … Europeans somehow manage to coexist with species that recenlty were hunted down and extirpated. Although rewilding projects occasionally meet local resistance, particularly in areas with a long cultural history, mostly they are applauded by the general public.

He later writes that “resurging wolves confront us with our desire for control, not only control over nature, but also control over our own nature.”

I suspect that “control” or “lack of control” is central to why so many people either deny climate change or take a fatalistically passive approach to it. And if the earth is widely viewed as a sinking ship, then the predominant view is “humans first.”

In the chapter Speaking with Animals Eva Meijer writes about human exceptionalism:

Viewing humans as fundamentally different, and hierarchically above other animals, leads humans to act in ways that do not take into account the well-being of other animals, and to see their interests as less important than human interests.

Which brings me back to anthropocene. I thought the term was already well past the proposed stage based on how commonly it is now used. So I don’t see it going away.

I’m glad that I now see the intrinsic flaws. But I suspect the benefits are worth the downsides and oversights. Because this idea that humans have broken the planet is an idea that, well, speaks to humans. As self-centered as it may be, it is humans who will have to fix it.

Rustick ends her essay:

… we need to pull away from our reflection, sit by the pond with its many beings as our companions, and inhale the air in which we sit and on which we depend. We ned to listen, to see, to smell, and to touch with the wider sense of self, with compassion, empathy, and respect for all who live here within a living Earth.

Thinking about Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene (Ecocritical Theory and Practice)
Edited by Morton Tonnessen, Kristin Armstrong Oma, Silver Rattasepp
Lexington Books

 

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Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature

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The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. And while a century may seem like a long time, it’s safe to say, after reading Engineering Eden, that we’re only just beginning to understand how to best manage our lands.

Fundamental to management is the question of how “wild” do we want our parks to be? Author Jordan Fisher Smith writes:

There are two ways in which most people don’t wish to die: by being torn apart by a wild animal and by being roasted in flames. These two abject fears from deep in the ape-psyche, became, in the American West, bloated government programs, the two-headed dragon that Starker Leopold fought all his life.

In the early days of the park systems, we waged a war on predators that effectively eradicated them from most of the United States. In 1915, Congress authorized the killing of 11,000 coyotes in California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and Utah. Wolves, bobcats, mountain lions were also killed in massive numbers, primarily to rid the government lands of predators that might attack livestock.

Interestingly, bears were largely given a pass in our national parks because they were a major tourist attraction. Shows were conducted in Yellowstone in which people would sit in bleachers to watch bears congregate at food dumps that the park service maintained. When these food dumps were closed in 1970 in an effort to create a more “balanced” ecosystem, a concept championed by naturalists such as Starker Leopold, chaos ensued. Hungry bears scoured campgrounds for food and came into conflict with humans.

The main narrative of the book centers around the story of one man mauled to death by a grizzly in Yellowstone Park in 1972 and the legal case that followed.

Smith covers a lot of material in this book, from elk hunting in Yosemite to controlled burning in Sequoia National Park, which at times may feel a bit overwhelming. But I appreciated the wealth of detail. And I empathized with the struggles that the park managers faced in trying to create environments that were both wild and safe. This isn’t Disneyland after all.

I also was not aware just how far back in history people were feeding bears from their cars — as in the 1920s! And bears were tearing their way into cars back then as well. Even then there were those who recommended that secure food storage was essential to living more harmoniously with these 400-pound neighbors. Sadly, it took too many decades until food storage became as well established as it is today.

Engineering Eden documents important and at times deeply tragic missteps in the evolution of our park system. Hopefully the next 100 years will be far more “balanced.”

Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature

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