LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION
By Brandon Navratil
In Executive Producer Alan Lacy’s first film, “Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest” explores the plight of a species the world almost lost forever. Along with Director Dean Cannon and TLP Media, the 50-minute feature tells the story of “El Lobo”, the Mexican gray wolf once exterminated from the wild but, through the efforts of dedicated people, is now making a comeback. This wolf is a subspecies of the northern gray wolf and has historically existed from the northern tip of Arizona to central Mexico. Now, growing in number from a very small foundation and living in the wild, the Mexican gray wolf faces new and old problems as it comes back from the brink of extinction.
Alan Lacy uses his love of photography, storytelling, and a passionate connection with “El lobo” in the creation of this film. Starting in 2011, Lacy has followed the path of the Mexican wolf from the captive breeding program to release in the wild. With his ability of storytelling he shares the perspectives of dedicated people behind the wolf recovery program and what it has taken to reach a wild population of just under 100 wolves and growing. Also from his desire to do something for the cause he created a website to educate others on the natural history and endangered status of the wolf, at the same time adding to the support of the film and recovery program.
The director Dean Cannon grew up in the Sonora Desert of Arizona where he developed a passion for flying and photography. These two things brought him around the world working for such organizations as Animal Planet, Discovery HD, and National Geographic Channel. Dean continues to work with Alaska Fish and Game flying around the entire state filming. These two have brought the experience, background, and connection with the natural world to the story of a species vying for its very existence in the area that it has historically called home.
The film starts with a narration on the history of the species. Once roaming from the top of Arizona to central Mexico, they numbered over 10,000 strong. Yet, very similarly to their northern relatives, encroaching human populations sponsored by government bounties eradicated the species. Thought to be extinct from the wild in the Southwestern US completely by the 1940s, the potentially last 5 remaining wild individuals were captured in remote states of Mexico between 1977 and 1980. Along with two individuals from captivity these 7 were the genetic foundation of future populations.
Through interviews with the current and former Coordinators of the US Fish and Wildlife Mexican Wolf Recovery Program and historic imagery, the viewer gains perspective on this history and the efforts to keep “El Lobo” from extinction once it was listed as an endangered species in 1976. After nearly 20 years of captive breeding some were released in 1998. Very similar to footage taken in Bob Landis’ 1998 film “Wolf Pack” during the Yellowstone release into localizing pens, the audience sees the actual historic footage of this localization before complete release into the wild. The audience starts to get a sense of the plight of the species historically while being drawn in by the efforts of reestablishing a top predator and their eventual release.
Transitioning into current times the film explains one of the major themes and issue the Mexican wolf faces. A captive female named Ernesta became a candidate for release due to her particular genetics. Starting from 7 individuals to nearly 100, the genetic viability of the population is a growing concern. Since 2005 over 100 wolves have been killed or removed from the wild population, with only 9 captive born ones released. As a result you learn inbreeding effects may become very prominent in a couple generations.
As the film draws a direct parallel to Yellowstone explaining the Blue Range Wolf Recovery area is twice the size at 4.4 million acres, the viewer starts to learn how the two recoveries differ. The entire Blue Range area is national forest or public land, livestock grazes on 90% of it, with a multitude of roads, all of which create high unnatural mortality. As you’re considering this scenario the film brings in the other major theme and issue facing the recovery.
With livestock grazing 90% of the recovery area, conflict with humans is inevitable. This results in a population that must be highly monitored with 51 working radio-tracking collars, over half the total population. Interviews with a couple ranchers show the difficulties of living around wolves. However, the interesting point is raised of how ranchers may only own a small number of acres but graze or influence thousands more. Federal protection of the wolf applies only to public land, not private, yet some ranchers identify the public land as their home. The age-old issue of human activity conflicting with top predators continues to be a major factor in how the situation plays out.
You can understand both sides of the issue as the film presents it, which I think is good how they then go into a wolf’s effect on the ecosystem. There is no doubt top predators and humans will always battle, yet having space for predators is essential to the health of the natural area both depend on. Being a top predator, almost everything in the ecosystem is influenced by their presence. Once a piece of that is removed, the system can start to negatively change in ways we are only beginning to understand. So how much space should humans who have been there for generations get free of predators? And how much space should animals that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years more be allowed to live on? It is an answer that varies with each issue, location, and species, but both sides need to be taken into account without one disappearing completely. This is supported as the film explains a wolf’s influence on elk behavior, which changes vegetation, riparian zones, the presence of beavers, other species, and so on.
Unlike Yellowstone, the Mexican wolf is not allowed to leave the recovery area. If a wolf ventures outside the zone, they are then recaptured. There is a new proposed area encompassing southern New Mexico and Arizona. As expected, there are benefits and negatives to expanding the range of the recovery area, such as a changing density of wolves in the current area, or future interactions with ranchers in the expansion.
Bringing some relief footage away from the controversy, biologists bring the viewers to a den site for a pup count of two collared adults. In some warming shots of a very young pup poking its head out, they view a minimum of 3 pups. Fourty-four pups were observed to be born into the wild during a population estimate a few years ago. Ernesta, the genetically valuable female, had a litter of 6, but her mate abandoned her so the whole family was brought back into captivity. However, to preserve her genetics in the wild population, officials cross-foster two pups into a wild litter in hopes of keeping her genetics in the wild population.
This again shows the complicated nature of the Mexican wolf recovery through genetics and utilizing as many techniques as possible, such as cross-fostering. Another technique shown is saving genes from an individual wolf in liquid nitrogen for the future viability of the species. Range riders also patrol vulnerable groups of cattle preventing depredation.
After explaining some of these techniques and measures taken to help the recovery, another positive moment is shown between a rancher and two younger field technicians tracking wolves. The idea of trust between management and locals is key to the success of recovery. They exchange some local information, concerns, and graciously go their separate ways. Through the quotes of two individuals, both sides have an idea of how trust and communication is vital for both side’s goals.
With the success of the cross-fostering is a renewed sense of recovery. At the end of the population survey, the field team documents 110 wolves in the wild, the first time the recovery has a population of 100. With updated information the two cross-fostered pups have been seen with a mate or litter of pups, bringing the efforts of the recovery team full circle. The technique has been shown to work and 6 more pups were cross-fostered into the wild for the genetic viability.
Capping off the story the audience reads that for the first time in 40 years the Mexican wolf is released into the wilds of Mexico. From my experience in the Yellowstone ecosystem, it is clear the complications presented in recovering a top predator without the protection of a national park certainly make this wolf recovery a story of its own. The film does a good job to show different perspectives of the issue. Although more individuals speaking on the side of the ranchers could have been used, the ideas and differences were conveyed well. It will benefit the viewer to pay attention to the title of each person when it is shown, as they are not often again throughout the film.
The continued success of the Mexican wolf’s recovery will involve cooperation of all sides, communication, trust, and further understanding. A variety of techniques have been utilized to keep the species from extinction and allow them to roam wild again. “Gray Area” explains this history in a storyline the viewer can follow, understand, learn from, and gain a sense where the future may go.