A wolf pack has been moved into central Idaho from Canada and deposited near the small ranching town of Challis, on the Salmon River. Usually only a breeding pair is introduced, but on this occasion an entire pack has been brought as a group in order to observe how long it remains intact before some drift away. B-17, the alpha male, B-14, the alpha female, and their offspring all wear the hated radio collars about their necks.
Charlie, the third generation of the Buchanan family to occupy the Rafter B ranch, had joined the army nine years ago because of continual feuding with his father, old C.S. Buchanan. Upon separation from Special Forces, he returns to the ranch because of a feeling of familial obligation to carry on its hundred-year tradition. He finds the ranch in disrepair and occupied only by C.S. and Buck Travers, the elderly ranch foreman. They are aged and irascible, constantly sniping at each other, and virtually uninterested in the prosperity or appearance of the Rafter B. Worse, C.S. is under siege by various governmental agenciesIdaho Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environment Protection Agency, I.R.S., and the Forest Service are all sniping at him for various transgressions. Although discharged from the Service, Charlie remains very patriotic and cannot believe the irrational stand his government is taking on some of these issues. C.S. is served with a warrant for draining a wetland and has to appear in District Court. Charlie seeks the legal aid of Henry J. Twilling, the only local attorney, and is informed of a number of egregious actions taken by the E.P.A. in such matters in the past.
The local militia group, the Christian Guard Tabernacle, and its ordained-by-mail minister, Clete Jarvis, volunteer their assistance to the Buchanan cause, but Charlie finds their creed too bigoted and violently racist, clothed though it is in religious trappings. He shuns them.
A trial date is set, but before it arrives the wolves get among the Rafter B cattle. C.S. shoots a wolf in full view of some Fish and Wildlife agents who are in a helicopter overhead. They swoop down, arrest him, and place him in handcuffs. He suffers a heart attack under the emotional strain and dies on the spot. Charlie considers this the ultimate harassment and he sets out to kill the reintroduced wolf pack as his anti-government statement.
His ill-advised mission carries over into the winter season and becomes a grim wilderness adventure. His intentions cause much anger in Amy Richards, Charlies lover, who is a strong environmentalist. She reports his actions to the local sheriff. Soon Charlies hunt for the wolves involve him and sometimes the militia group on one side of the struggle, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sheriff Baxter, National Guard helicopters with their infra red heat scanning, in concert with the brutal winter weather on the other side. After three in the wolf pack have been killed, B-17, the old alpha male, also becomes a hunter and antagonist of Charlie Buchanan.
In the end, the struggle focuses on B-17 and Charlie alone. Only one survives in this novel which, being essentially pro-wolf in nature, illustrates clearly that many levels of predatory activity exist in our society. The wolves are not the only predators.