The wolves that have been reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park are some of the most intensely monitored animals on the planet. One person, in particular, has dedicated his life to watching and studying them: biological technician and park ranger Rick McIntyre. The Reign of Wolf 21 is the second book in the Alpha Wolves of Yellowstone trilogy and chronicles the life of, arguably, Yellowstone’s most famous and loved wolf.
If you pick up this book, it is likely that you read and enjoyed the previous book, The Rise of Wolf 8. A foreword by Marc Bekoff and a brief refresher titled “Previously in Lamar Valley” bring you up to speed on the most significant events so far. After this, the book picks up where the last one left off, focusing on the second half of wolf 21’s long life, from 2000 to 2004.
Let me get one thing out of the way first: you do not read this book for its beautiful prose, but because, like McIntyre, you are absolutely fascinated by wolves. He effectively turns his collection of field notes into a blow-by-blow account. As any proper ethologist would, this means McIntyre factually describes their behaviour: the hunting, migrating, mating, denning, fighting, playing, socialising, defending of territory, and all the other behaviours that make up the daily lives of wolves. It is, admittedly, a narrative style that might not suit everyone. Only occasionally will he allow himself to imagine their motives or thoughts, though I never felt his explanations were implausible given the behavioural observations underpinning them.
Sprinkled throughout are sparse personal anecdotes of interactions with park visitors or mention of relevant results from scientific studies. By 2000, McIntyre was working in Yellowstone National Park full-time and was no longer moving between different assignments. It was also when he started his unbelievable 6,175-day-streak of being in the park each and every day. Thus, even more so than the previous book, the focus here is solely on the wolves.
“[…] the result of his singular devotion is, again, an unprecedented chronicle of the life of an exceptional wolf.”
McIntyre’s idiosyncratic writing style notwithstanding, the result of his singular devotion is, again, an unprecedented chronicle of the life of an exceptional wolf. We find wolf 21 as the alpha male of the Druid Peak pack, still ruled over by the tyrannical alpha female, wolf 40, and her sister, wolf 42, who is 21’s love interest. Wolf 40 quickly gets her comeuppance, leaving 21 and 42 to finally be together and lead the pack. And lead it they do. By the end of 2001, 42 and three other females all have offspring, the majority of which survive thanks to the gentle and cooperative leadership of the alpha pair. At this point the Druid pack balloons to a record-breaking 37 members, the largest-ever recorded wolf pack anywhere.
Here is where there is one noticeable improvement compared to The Rise of Wolf 8: the book’s structure. Whereas the first book had one map and a few family trees at the beginning, this book is divided into parts, one for each year, containing several chapters. Each part is prefaced by a range map of territories for that year, and family trees of all the packs that play a role. I remarked upon the need for more visuals when reviewing the first book, and, though I take no credit for it, I am glad to see that McIntyre made that change. And you will need them because this superpack can, of course, not last. As the new generation matures, male suitors show up and other wolves strike out on their own, so that by 2002 four new packs form, all led by former Druid females. The newcomers to those packs and their offspring quickly make for a tangled web so that by the end of the book it can become a bit of a struggle to tell apart the different wolves.
Besides wolves 21 and 42, two others play particularly important roles. Wolf 253, a son of 21, ends up with a permanent injury to his hind leg from a snare and, later in life, injuries to a further two other legs. Nevertheless, he proves to be tough as nails and remains a devoted Druid member. And then there is an outsider, wolf 302, a dashing bad boy from the neighbouring Leopold pack who is very popular with the ladies. Possibly a nephew of 21, he breeds with quite a few Druid females, effectively cuckolding 21. In many ways, 302 is the opposite of the devoted leader that 21 is and the two maintain a long-running contentious relationship.
“[…] when the inevitable end came I will not deny that I cried, that is how much McIntyre had me invested in their lives.”
The Reign of Wolf 21 again allows a peek into the private lives of wolves, revealing both how individuals have unique personalities and characters (something Frans de Waal and Carl Safina have convinced me of), but also describing remarkable behaviours. Two stood out in particular in this book. First is how wolves will readily face down other predators such as bears and mountain lions—and be successful despite the danger. The other was an entertaining chapter containing observations on the mutually beneficial relationship between wolves and ravens.
Wolves 21 and 42 end up having a long and very successful reign, living to be almost nine years old, twice as long as your average Yellowstone wolf. Safina’s Beyond Words already contained a touching description of how it ends, and, by my interpretation, McIntyre foreshadowed it in The Rise of Wolf 8: “Years later I would stand on the hill in that meadow, next to the conifer, and experience the most profound moment I ever had with 21, but that is a story for another time” (p. 227). Even so, when the inevitable end came I will not deny that I cried, that is how much McIntyre had me invested in their lives. Does he insert some dramatic flair in his description here? Certainly. But if anyone knew these wolves intimately, it is McIntyre, and what he writes is entirely plausible in my opinion.
With this epic story of wolf 21 now told, who will be the subject of the final book? The epilogue of The Rise of Wolf 8 announced that the next two books would deal with the story of 21, his relatives, and his descendants. No details have been revealed as I write this, but it could be wolf 911, whose story we are promised on page 80, or wolf 302’s attempted takeover of the Druid pack mentioned on page 229*. Whichever it will be, I will gladly sit down with the third book and immerse myself in their lives once more. For now, as a narrative counterbalance to the hard science described in, for example, the recently published Yellowstone Wolves, these first two books in the trilogy are without equal in their level of intimate detail.
* About a month after this review was published, Greystone Books revealed the final instalment in this trilogy: The Redemption of Wolf 302
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: