A Dwindling Wolf Population is Saved by a Delicate Balance

by Caitlin Zera

Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest is the story of how the Mexican gray wolf was from rescued from the brink of extinction. The story begins with the U.S. government’s federal campaign to eradicate predators, like the gray wolf, from public lands with ranching leases, but the drama of the story comes from the campaign to bring the gray wolf back from extinction, one waged by conservationists and biologists who in rescuing just seven wolves brought the species back. The gray wolf’s current wild population is about 100 animals. Gray Area screens Tuesday, April 3rd at Webster University as part of the St. Louis Earth Day Film Series.

Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest

Directed by Dean Cannon

Runtime: 50 minutes

Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest works on several levels.  It spotlights the work of dedicated conservationists and biologists, and it features one of the most beloved and feared wild animals – wolves. It also highlights our human shortsightedness in seeking to eradicate a keystone predator from an ecosystem and what the repercussions for such actions are.

The film’s driving narrative is about the gray wolf’s recovery and the central challenge for the wolf population today: increasing genetic diversity. Inbreeding with such a small population can lead to vulnerabilities, like disease. The film features St. Louis’s own Endangered Wolf Center, which has played a central role in the gray wolf’s recovery and the establishment a genetically healthy population.

Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest is a relatively short feature documentary, clocking in at less than hour. But the film offers a thorough and nuanced view of the gray wolf’s near demise and now hopefully triumphant recovery. One especially interesting component of the story that is woven throughout the film but could be explored further and could certainly be expanded beyond the 50 minute runtime is the tension surrounding public land.

In order to protect the gray wolf, conservationists, biologists, ranchers and local residents all have to work together. It becomes clear through the interviews featured in the film with all these players that this task may be the most challenging. At work are differing ideologies, differing views on what public land is and how it functions, what purposes it serves and how it should be regulated. There are even contentions around who owns public land. One rancher goes as far to say that the concept of public ownership of federal lands is “really just on paper.”

Mexican gray wolves were eradicated from parts of the southwest because they threatened livestock. A lot of livestock ranching in the southwest still happens on ranches that have leases on public lands. Some of these ranch leases date back to when the west was first settled by European people.

Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest doesn’t have time to delve deeply into the philosophical implications of public land use or the origins of colonialism’s role in the settling and ranching of the southwest. Its focus is genetic diversity within the recovery gray wolf population, but it offers just enough insights into these topics that viewers may wonder what a longer piece that does addresses the gray wolf recovery in the full context of these issues would be like.

Gray Area also doesn’t shy away from interviewing subjects that may disagree with one another. It does utmost diligence in interviewing subjects whose perspectives are valuable and consider all sides. Of the Fish & Wildlife Service, one rancher says, “I give them credit where credit is due. People on the ground have an understanding of our participation in this world. There is room for harmony, coexistence in this world.”

For those looking for a film about saving wild animals, Gray Area delivers an inspirational story. For those looking for a film about the scope of our society’s impact on wild animal populations, it provides some new information over which to mull. And for those looking for a film about the political and ideological struggles surrounding wildlife conservation, Gray Area will pique your interest and prove we still have a long way to go to reconcile our differences for the betterment of our environment.

Gray Area screens Tuesday, April 3rd at the Webster University Winifred Moore Auditorium as part of the St. Louis Earth Day Film Series. More info here.

Gray Area screened Thursday, November 9th at the Tivoli Theatre as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. More info here.