REVIEW – THE PIPESTONE WOLVES:
THE RISE AND FALL OF A WOLF FAMILY
Review by Scott Lilwall
In the Rocky Mountains we’re no stranger to the impact that human behaviour has had on the wildlife that call this land home. But do we really know the full extent? Considering events that unfolded this past summer, Günther Bloch’s The Pipestone Wolves: The Rise and Fall of a Wolf Family couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. In this review, Scott Lilwall unpacks this all-in-one scientific summary, indictment, and wolf family drama, brought to life through images from wildlife photographer John E. Marriott.
At first glance, it is difficult to characterize The Pipestone Wolves.
In some ways, it is a scientific summary, complete with appendices and graphs coaxed from more than 20,000 hours spent observing the elusive wolf family along Banff’s Bow Valley Parkway. At times, it also reads as an indictment — of humans in general, Parks Canada in particular — highlighting the devastating consequences of human indifference and ignorance.
But at its heart, The Pipestone Wolves is a family drama. Bloch and his wife, Karin, who have spent years researching dog and wolf behaviour, are the ideal biographers for the animals.
Along with photographer John E. Marriott, whose gorgeous full-colour shots grace nearly every page of the book, the couple tracks the tragic rise and fall of the Pipestone wolves — from the first sightings in 2008 to the pack’s disintegration eight years later.
In doing so, Bloch challenges almost every common misconception about the wolves. The idea of the animals as ruthless, bloodthirsty predators is treated as an insult. Popular concepts like ‘wolf packs driven purely by instinct’ and ‘domineering alpha males’ are dismissed as artifacts that come from studying wolves dealing with the stresses of captivity.
Instead, Bloch makes a passionate argument that wild wolves, like the Pipestones, live in close-knit families. The wolves in the book are portrayed as highly emotional and intelligent, each given their own name and displaying a unique personality: Blizzard, the playful babysitter; the private, independent Skoki; Faith and Spirit, the dominant breeding pair who share responsibility over the rest.
Helped along by enthusiastic writing and carefully selected anecdotes, The Pipestone Wolves manages to be insightful while not being impenetrable — Bloch keeps his promise of sticking to claims backed up from the couple’s own observations. Except for a few stiff passages and an oddly-structured opening chapter, the writing is engaging and easy to slip into. The best sections of the book are where Bloch slips out of his role as an experienced wildlife observer and lets his enthusiasm for wolves shine through.
However, it is not a happy story. From the moment the reader finishes the subtitle, you know that the Pipestones are doomed. Bloch does not shy away from this reality and every wolf’s demise is eulogized to the best of his knowledge. It happens so frequently, the final chapters of the book take on a grim rhythm: another wolf dead on the Trans-Canada or on the railroad tracks, another pup starved as the amount of prey dwindles.
That grief turns into barely-veiled anger when the author describes how the Pipestone family began to fracture and fall apart. In Bloch’s eyes, animal culls, busy traffic and overzealous tourists are all responsible for the wolves’ demise. However, he reserves his harshest criticisms for Parks Canada, painting the organization as too beholden to the interests of tourists and outdated ideas about wildlife management.
The Pipestone Wolves ends with a prophetic warning: that the pack of wolves that moved into the territory after the titular family are likely to share the same fate — written shortly before a summer that saw two wolves shot by Parks Canada due to human food habituation and another four pups killed by trains.
The Pipestone Wolves draws readers into a world that very few people have seen. After reading this book and seeing Marriott’s stunning photography, I came to appreciate these elusive creatures, and also came to terms with an unavoidable truth: that we all bear responsibility for the wolves’ tragic fate.
Scott Lilwall is a multi-platform journalist currently living in Banff, Alberta.