Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Shooting the wolf with a Canon

Hailey filmmakers to speak in Ketchum


Jim Dutcher gets cozy with Kamots, whom he raised from a pup.

Our culture is rife with wolf tales and fables. There's Little Red Riding Hood's granny-devouring wolf, the Big Bad Wolf's hyper-asthmatic home wrecking and the standard parental favorite, the "Boy Who Cried Wolf."

According to Hailey resident Jim Dutcher, though, humanity's obsessive fear of wolves is pure bunk. In his eyes, the wolf is "The most misunderstood and persecuted animal we have."

Dutcher, 62, is no mere weekend wolf enthusiast. A three-time Emmy Award winner for his work filming wolves in the Sawtooth Mountains, the Dutchers—Jim's wife, Jamie Dutcher, is a sound editor and partner on the projects—have literally given years of their lives to the culturally maligned canine.

In the 1990s, the filmmakers did something unprecedented. In a 25-acre enclosure just outside of Stanley, the Dutchers raised a pack of wolves from birth to maturity to death. The site was the largest enclosed wolf preserve in the world. For most of the decade, the film crew lived in a tented camp, bottle-feeding the pups while studying, watching and, most importantly, filming the wolves' social behavior.

"It's a social animal that cares for its family," Dutcher said. "We treat them as vermin, but it's just as intelligent as an elephant or a chimpanzee."

Dutcher, already an established documentarian with films on National Geographic and PBS, created two documentaries with hopes of dispelling wolf fallacies: "Return of a Legend," (ABC Television, 1994) and "Wolves at Our Door," (Discovery Channel, 1998). The first won an Emmy for Best Outstanding Documentary and the second won two for Best Sound and Best Cinematography.

Three years ago, the Dutchers set out to tell their entire 15-year wolf odyssey with a film and photo essay book.

"Living with Wolves," was published and aired on the Discovery Channel in May, 2005.

Still, many in the West, particularly in ranching communities along the Salmon River corridor, see no romance in the wolf.

"After we cleared them out 35 years ago or whenever, why would we want them back?" said Challis Republican state representative Lenore Hardy Barrett in a May, 2004 interview with The New York Times.

Dutcher has met plenty of people with such opinions; in Western ranching towns, Barrett's views are the mainstream.

However, Dutcher is no enemy to ranchers. In fact, it was on a Wyoming ranch in 1959 that he saw his first wolf in the wild. When he returned to that same ranch in 1989, he spotted a second and decided the animal would be his camera's next focal point.

"The ranch brought me to the West. I'd hate to see ranchers go away."

Despite the sympathy to their lifestyle, however, Dutcher feels that ranchers are overstating the wolf threat.

"It's exaggerated," he said. "There were 182 sheep killed last year in Idaho by wolves, and 5,000 sheep were killed by coyotes. Nobody is screaming about coyotes."

In fact, according to an Idaho Agricultural Statistics Service study, there were 8,400 sheep and lambs killed by coyotes in 2004, compared to 800 killed by wolves, bobcats, and eagles combined.

Pressed on why he thinks the ranchers have demonized the wolf, Dutcher suspects the West's libertarian roots.

"The ranchers hate the federal government for bringing them back," he said.

Still, Dutcher was never actually a proponent of the forced wolf reintroduction in Idaho.

"We wanted them to come back naturally, but protected," he said.

In the northern Midwest, wolves have been naturally regaining territory. According to a March 2004 article in The New York Times, there are now more than 3,000 wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Though most of these are in rural Minnesota, some have reached as far south as central Wisconsin.

The problem in the West, Dutcher posits, is that by forcing small numbers of wolves into new territory, they had little choice but hunt livestock.

"They prefer deer and elk and ungulates like moose and caribou, but if you drop them off, and they are not running with a pack, it's impossible for two of them to bring down an elk by themselves."

In Minnesota, where the animals' reemergence was gradual and a matter of nature, wolves have largely avoided people and livestock.

"There has never been an attack on a human being in North America," Dutcher said. "They are extremely afraid of people."

Since the release of "Living with Wolves," the Dutchers have kept a busy schedule of public speaking appearances. Following the presentation at Ketchum's Community Library, they will be traveling to New York City to speak at the American Natural History Museum and then on to the Smithsonian's Natural Historical Museum in Washington, D.C.

With another Emmy night on the horizon—this year's awards will be held on Sept. 11 in Los Angeles—these Hailey filmmakers look towards that familiar stroll down the red carpet. "Living with Wolves," has been nominated for Outstanding Cinematography.

After such considerable success, Dutcher remains indebted to the wolves themselves.

"These wolves opened up their lives and let us tell their story."

The truth about Wolves

Jim and Jamie Dutcher will present a short film and answer questions during an hour-long presentation at the Community Library at 415 Spruce Ave. N. in Ketchum, Thursday, Aug. 18, 7 p.m.

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