THE NINEMILE WOLVES By Rick Bass Clark City Press 162 pp., $22.95
THE biological and political world of endangered species includes thousands of little bugs and plants most people never hear of or care about, except when they get in the way of building something mankind wants or interfere with the extraction of natural resources.
What are called the "charismatic megafauna" - the bigger critters (usually mammals) - are either warm and fuzzy and cute or carry with them a wild and sometimes violent history both frightening and attractive.
Such is the case with wolves, whose reputation for strength and cunning seems mostly concentrated in stories about boys and girls (and little pigs) who get eaten.
Over the past century, most of the wolves in North America were wiped out - shot, poisoned, and mangled in traps by bounty hunters and ranchers. This carnage has placed them on the official Endangered Species Act list, which provides protection from harm and requires a government "recovery plan."
Wolves seem to be making a slight comeback in some areas, and this summer has seen an increasing debate over whether they should be reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park as part of their recovery.
There is no doubt where Rick Bass, author of "The Ninemile Wolves," stands. He is accurately described in the dust jacket as "defiant and opinionated"and his lengthy essay on the subject as "not so much a scientific study as one man's vigorous, emotional inquiry into the proper relationship between man and nature."
Despite (or perhaps because of) this passion for his subject, Bass's well-written book is a valuable contribution to the search for that proper balance as what we call civilization steadily and inevitably encroaches on the habitat and living patterns of other species. This work could properly be shelved alongside the writings of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey.
As well as being an active environmentalist and writer (this is his sixth book), Bass is an oil geologist and hunter who lives in Montana near the Canadian border. This book traces the brief, three-generation history of the known members of a small wolf pack tracked by federal government wildlife specialists in that area from 1989 to early this year. Much of what we see is through the eyes of United States Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Mike Jimenez and the Thisted brothers, longtime ranchers who admi ringly watched and photographed the wolf pups in their pasture.
There is frustration and tragedy to the story as some of the pack are shot, starved, and in one instance hit by a car on the interstate highway. Bass and the scientists who track them try hard not to anthropomorphize wolves, which do on occasion attack cattle, sheep, and pet dogs as well as the deer and elk that are their natural prey (and that have become overabundant because wolves are so scarce.)
But it's difficult for Bass and even the biologists and others who follow wolves closely not to attribute to them soulful and even spiritual qualities when the animals operate with such great vitality and in such obvious family units.
"All wolves are tied together. It's a brotherhood, a sisterhood.... They - the wolves - remind us of ourselves on our better days, our best days," Bass writes. "They teach us spendidly about the overriding force of nature, too - about the way we've managed to suppress and ignore it in ourselves, or judge it."
In a way, what the dominant human society did to wolves in pushing back the frontier and claiming territory for economic gain in the form of tens of millions of head of nonnative species (cattle) is the same thing it did to native Americans.
Something intangible - again, some would say spiritual - was lost in the process.
That's Rick Bass's message, and it's a good one to remember.