For centuries wolves have served as the villains in some of our most popular fairy tales. Their depiction as snarling, ravenous beasts spoke to Europeans’ most primal fears, and helped to fuel the species’ extirpation in North America as white settlers sought to bend the environment to their will. The successful reintroduction of the grey wolf in the Northern Rockies in the 1990s began to slowly shift the collective understanding of their true nature and ecological significance. But as directors Alex Goetz and Justin Grubb reveal, old stereotypes aren’t easily reversed.
Resilience: Story of the American Red Wolf is a conservation roller coaster ride that many Montanans will have a hard time believing, one that focuses on an often forgotten distinct species whose numbers in the wild now hover around 30. The 20th century dealt the red wolves of the American Southeast one bad hand after another, with efforts to bring the species back from extinction unraveling in the face of historic human fear. Goetz and Grubb quickly and seamlessly document this checkered past, ushering the viewer into a present that’s as tenuous as it is hopeful.
In doing so, the duo also shed light on an impossible bit of irony. The very captive breeding and reintroduction effort that pulled the red wolf from extinction in the wild inspired the federal government’s work to return grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park. However, while Montanans are now surrounded by a robust and delisted wolf population, the red wolves of North Carolina are once more in a perilous situation. It’s this irony that prompts the subjects of Goetz and Grubb’s film to wonder what more can be done for red wolves, and whether a western success can help improve an eastern struggle.
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Correction: This story was updated to say that the red wolf is considered a “distinct species.”