The film Return of the Wild: A Modern Tale of Wolf and Man http://www.returntothewild.com/, offers a refreshing and candid view of wolves and the debate that swirls around their restoration in the Northern Rockies. Irish filmmaker Martin O'Brien tracks the stunning success of wolf introduction, beginning with shots of wolves bursting from their crates in Yellowstone Park in 1995, released to the wild following their long journey from Canada.
O'Brien places this successful endangered species recovery story firmly within the context of our historic antipathy toward wolves. What we did over the last few centuries to wolves goes beyond concern about competition with livestock, or simple fear. As National Park Service wolf expert Doug Smith tells the story in the film, we baited wolves with razor blades in meat so as to slice open their guts, we broke off their jaws and returned them into the wild, we gunned down pups. "It's amazing how good we were at killing wolves", comments Smith, somehow with a straight face. Indeed, we all but eliminated them from the lower 48 states by the 1940's.
But we humans have been learning, albeit haltingly and with some ambivalence, about the role wolves and other top carnivores play in maintaining functioning ecosystems. They don't just balance the number of prey--they help maintain the health of streamside vegetation such as willow, which in turn provides habitat for beavers, fisheries and songbirds. Fulfilling again their historic ecological role, wolves also make Yellowstone one of the last intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states-replete with all the species of wildlife that were here at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The film tracks wolf packs up close and personal-playing, sleeping, and hunting elk in Yellowstone Park. And it tracks the wolf "groupies", who flock to Yellowstone annually to celebrate an animal so long vilified.
O'Brien also provides a fair and compassionate portrayal of ranchers on the other side of the wolf debate, those who have lost livestock to wolves. People like Jim Mulin, who lost 25 sheep in one night and then gave up grazing sheep altogether, in favor of cows. Bumping along in his pickup truck, Mulin quizzed the filmmaker: "What do you call sheep? Grizzly marshmallows", and laughs, a big belly laugh.
Other ranchers, like Mike Stevens of the Lava Lake Land and Livestock Company, are making efforts nothing short of heroic to live with wolves. Aided by Wildlife Service's Rick Williamson, who resembles a bear, as well as a young able-bodied crew armed with telemetry gear, fladry, guard dogs and electric fence, the film documents Lava Lake's successful efforts to graze sheep in a 5,000 acre area. There were no livestock depredations during the summer when the film was shot.
"It's not easy", says Williamson in the film. "Wolves will habituate to anything you have, if you use it long enough. That's why you need all the tools in the bag". Williamson should know. He is one of the most successful Wildlife Services agents in the challenging arena of livestock husbandry that does not necessitate killing wolves. It's not that he hasn't killed his share of wolves during his career. It's just that he is a wise and practical soul, with a calm demeanor, a lot of skills, a can-do attitude and a commitment to make peace, where possible, with wolves and the domestic animals they too often view as food. It's people like Williamson and Stevens who offer new hope of a different kind of future for wolves and man in the West.
This modern tale is, at bottom, a story of competing values. About an old value system involved in dominating the West, and developing frontier (which is even embodied in children's cartoons of the big bad wolf), versus a new, competing value system that respects the wild, and wolves' rightful place in the ecosystems they help maintain.
As Smith says in the film, "We've got to come up with some better ways to live with wildlife. We've got to work it out somehow. We live in a time where we are losing bits of everything-wolves help us put things back".
Amen to that! Here's to forging a new relationship, and telling a new story about wolves and ranchers and all of us living, together, in our own frail, faulty, human way, in this remarkable landscape that is the Northern Rockies.