Martin Davis rides with his cattle along the windswept ridges above Paradise Valley, looking for signs of an enemy he'd thought had been beaten in his grandfather's day. But decades after the gray wolf was exterminated for the sake of livestock, an audacious wildlife experiment returned the species to Yellowstone Park in 1995. Now it's not a question of if, but when wolves will pass through Davis' mountain pastures. As the growing packs move north from the park into Montana, ranchers and wildlife experts struggle to find ways to keep the wolves from killing cattle and sheep — without violating the Endangered Species Act that protects the predator.Ranchers had fought hard to stop the wolf project. Conservationists, in turn, regarded ranchers as the main obstacle in their plan to restore an ecological balance to the northern Rockies.
Over time, conservationists have come to realize that what is good for the ranchers is also good for wildlife habitat. Leaders from both communities have found common ground in the effort to control runaway growth and development.
"I started noticing that the environmental folks are saying, 'You know, I like wolves but I also like ranchers too,'" says Davis. "They say, 'Where there are ranchers there's this wide open space. How can we have the rancher and the wolf together?' And that's the part we need to get figured out."
Set in the soaring mountains and majestic valleys of southwest Montana, the documentary Wolves in Paradise explores the answer to that question as it follows two very different ranching operations through a grazing season in wolf country. Filmmaker William Campbell spent more than six years documenting the relationship between ranchers, wolves and conservationists from his home base in Livingston, Montana.
Wolves in Paradise brings to life Davis' family ranching operation, a relatively small outfit that clings to tradition in a valley that is quickly turning from rangeland to vacation homes and subdivisions. In past seasons, wolves have picked off a couple of Davis' heifers and harassed the cattle so badly that they didn't gain weight. Another attack like that could wipe Davis out, and he approaches the summer with some apprehension.But in nearby Madison Valley, a California-born multimillionaire conservation rancher named Roger Lang welcomes both wolves and cattle on his 18,000 acre spread. "We look at the Sun Ranch as one big experiment," says Lang. At the beginning of the summer, ranch managers discover that they are grazing 1,500 head of cattle right in "wolf central," where the Wedge pack has chosen to den and raise pups. Lang and his team hope they can work with these wolves, teaching them not to prey on cattle, while using their presence to deter other packs from settling on the ranch. As the days grow shorter, the experiment becomes more interesting and then more deadly to both cows and wolves.
As Campbell follows both ranchers through the changing seasons, he documents the growing alliance between conservationists, government agencies and ranchers who seek creative solutions to allow livestock and wolves to coexist in Montana.
Recently, the struggle over the fate of the wolf is taking place in court where the environmental community is challenging the federal government over the decision by the Interior Department to remove wolves in the northern Rockies from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.