Wolves were once federally protected but now can be hunted again, making the fate and future of the wolf more controversial than ever. UK journalist Jim Wickens reports from Wyoming and Montana to provide his unique insight into the wolf wars of the West. His blog accompanies the exclusive Earth Focus report, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves, now online!
The Serengeti of the USA they call this place, and it's not hard to see why -- two million acres of unadulterated wildness. A nature lover's dream with rocks dating back 55 million years. A place where elk, bison, and, in recent years, 80 wolves run free.
But driving into the park you do also get a sense of a regulated grip on this 'wild' place. We had come to visit one of Yellowstone's leading wolf scientists, but first we had to get the permits. A brief meeting followed in the park headquarters, where we were talked through a list of do's, and a seemingly endless list of don'ts, for film crews who wish to visit the park. We had to sign an agreement not to consume alcohol, or even engage in nudity whilst shooting in Yellowstone. Snowflakes were falling outside the park office while this surreal meeting took place, and with the temperature way below freezing, the idea that a film crew might suddenly be inclined to strip off and engage in a booze-fuelled orgy bordered on farce. I couldn't help but wonder what antics other film crews must have gotten up to in the past for it to come to this?
But it wasn't all bad, Dr. Dan Stahler being the case in point. A mild-mannered and self-effacing guy, he swept us away from the alcohol and nudity prevention form-filling of the park office, driving us far into the frozen wastes of the Yellowstone wild.
For Dan, 'wolves mean wilderness,' and he talked with a contagious enthusiasm about the complex interplay of ecosystem management and predator studies. Dan comes across as a scientist with the rarest of talents -- the ability to combine sound science with succinct sound bites.
Standing over the freshly killed carcass of an elk, Dan was also a lot happier than I thought he would be. In recent months he has lost two of his radio collared wolves -- a leading alpha female and male from the same pack. Animals he had studied since 2006 when the female was born. Feted by park visitors for her hunting ability and leadership skills, the alpha female was shot recently by a hunter on the edge of Yellowstone, exercising his or her legal right to hunt wolves with a wolf tag. In our interview Dan appeared, to be surprisingly un-phased by the controversial wolf hunt, vying perhaps for the longer term aim of community bridge-building within the Eastern Rockies, rather than simply crying foul over the sudden death of a star wolf.
While the world rages over the taking of so-called Yellowstone wolves by state-sanctioned hunters, it seems the man who works closest with the animals is remaining cautiously distant. He didn't say as much, but it is clear that biology and PR at Yellowstone go hand in hand; one of the few places perhaps where scientists have to nurture community relations, even when it means their own research suffers as a result.
It seems that when you work with wolves in Yellowstone, pragmatism beats polarization hands down.
Jim Wickens is one of Britain's leading investigative journalists and the co-founder of both the Ecologist Film Unit and also Ecostorm, the environmental media agency. Jim has spend the last decade documenting unreported issues around the world, including exposing illicit whale-meat smuggling networks in Japan, filming the brutal Namibian seal hunt, documenting soya-related murders and poisoning in Argentina, breaking the story of fracking problems in the US, and filming illegal trawlers far out to sea on the Burmese border.