Watch Nat Hab’s “The Big Bad Wolf” and Read on for an Exclusive Interview with the Film’s Co-Producer—Wildlife Biologist, Aaron Bott
Directed by Andrew Ackerman, “The Big Bad Wolf” follows in the footsteps of Aaron Bott as he tracks wolves (Canis lupus) through snow-covered alpine meadows and beneath the branches of ancient conifers. As the title suggests, the short film introduces viewers to the controversial existence of these mythic creatures and exposes the conservation challenges wolves face in a landscape increasingly dominated by human influence.
Also featured in the film are a few of Gardiner, Montana’s nearly 900 residents, who are uniquely positioned to provide their perspective on the great wolf debate. Nestled in Paradise Valley, between the Absaroka-Beartooth and the Gallatin Mountain Ranges, Gardiner shares approximately 10 million acres of public land with one of the most diverse collections of large mammals in the country, including wolves, bison, bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn and grizzly and black bears. The small town is situated along the scenic Yellowstone River—the last major undammed river in the lower 48 states—flowing 671 miles from its source southeast of Yellowstone into the Missouri River and then, eventually, into the Atlantic Ocean.
Though not founded until 1880, Gardiner has functioned as the original gateway to North America’s first national park since 1872. Long before Yellowstone’s designation—for over 10,000 years—the convergence of the Great Plains, Great Basin and Columbia Plateau has served as Indigenous homeland for 27 Native American Tribes. When accessing Yellowstone, visitors pass through the historic Roosevelt Arch, which was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 and is the only entrance that remains open to wheeled-vehicle use year-round.
Listen to local residents: Andrew Anderson, Nathan Varley, Stacey Orsted, Anna Holloway and Richard Parks as they tell stories about what it is like to live in the Wild West. And hear from wolf biologist Doug Smith, who was hired by Yellowstone National Park to help reintroduce wolves in 1995. Among the film’s interviewees is Expedition Leader Colby Brokvist, who humbly declares, “there’s not another creature on the planet that defines wilderness like wolves.”
Meet Aaron Bott
Aaron Bott is deeply connected to the Northern Rockies, where his Mormon Pioneer family settled in the mid‒1800s. His western heritage and understanding of wildlife management allow him to move fluidly and genuinely between groups of different cultural values and find common ground without compromising his integrity. Most importantly, he can initiate civil discussions by promoting respect, empathy and integrity while advocating ways to sustain biodiversity and generate a healthy environment for both humans and wildlife.
Bott is a wildlife biologist and a doctoral student at Utah State University studying wolves across the American West—predicting spatial and behavioral patterns on an anthropocentric landscape to prevent conflict and promote human-carnivore coexistence.
Bott also works with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, studying and monitoring the occupancy and reproduction of wolves in the southwest interior of Yellowstone National Park. Under Yellowstone biologists’ supervision, Bott initiated and is now the project lead of a multi-year field study, monitoring wolf spatial persistence and reproduction on a multi-jurisdictional landscape. The success of this project has hinged on the healthy working relationships he established between the National Park Service, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Q & A
Brief: The underlying theme of “The Big Bad Wolf” is storytelling. What are the most common fictions surrounding wolves and their relationship with humans?
Bott: The first myth that I’d like to address is that wolves are super-predators. People have this perception that the wolf is a formidable predator—capable of bringing down large prey…disproportionately larger than itself. “Packs” are another misconception because people assume that packs are gangs of wolves that are essentially unstoppable killing machines, or super-organisms. People also assume that wolves make a massive impact on prey populations. The reality is that wolves are actually very ineffective as predators when compared to a true natural super-predator like the mountain lion. Mountain lions are ambush predators and obligate carnivores. They are much larger than wolves and have retractable claws, extraordinary vision and a shorter snout, which gives them a greater bite force. The kill rate of mountain lions—for example—on elk and deer, is way higher than wolves on elk and deer. Wolves are dangerous, just like all wild animals are dangerous, but they’re definitely the least dangerous of all of North America’s large carnivores.
Brief: What inspired you to pursue a Ph.D. in wildlife biology and, in particular, human-carnivore research?
Bott: My family has been out here in the Yellowstone ecosystem and the intermountain Rockies for six generations—170 years we’ve been out here. I have a deep sentimental attachment to the West and to the sense of identity that the West provides. Its rugged individualism…the heritage and the legacy. It’s a part of my own identity.
I remember when they were reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone and into central Idaho. My family was not all for wolves—there are a lot of mixed feelings regarding wolves. I remember being five years old and not understanding the concept of reintroduction but overhearing my parents and grandparents talking about it and all the hysteria that came with the topic. That left an indelible impression on me. Over time, I began to realize just what a unique position I was in growing up in and around rural parts of the American West. I began to appreciate just how incredible the biodiversity is in the Yellowstone ecosystem—in my very own backyard.
I realized that what I wanted to do more than anything was to fight for and protect my home. And the home that I loved most dearly was the woods and the outdoors and vast wild spaces. In order to do that effectively, you can kind of tackle one of two monsters: one is trying to stop the fragmentation of large mammal migrations throughout the greater Yellowstone area, and the other is trying to figure out how people can better coexist with carnivores. I thought, if you can resolve human-carnivore conflicts, then you have really achieved something, and everything else is like a molehill after that.
Brief: What has been your most transformative encounter with wolves?
Bott: I do field research in Yellowstone National Park and in the surrounding states. A lot of it is remote backcountry in places where most humans never get to venture to. My first wild wolf encounter was fairly late in the game—probably 10 years after they had been reintroduced. I saw a wolf, and it was mesmerizing. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of wolves—capturing them, putting radio collars on them…and still, I think back to that first encounter and how thrilling of an experience that was to run into this mythic creature.
Despite our interest in data and science, humans are ultimately a storytelling species. I can explain to you how wolf biology and ecology work, but at the end of the day, it really boils down to something as simple as the incredible and mysterious thrill that comes from encountering a large wild animal in its habitat. It is addicting. Just knowing that they are on the landscape is something that I think has intrinsic value—whether humans are present or not. That kind of wildness in the environment has intrinsic value.
Brief: What do you believe is the most effective way to mitigate anti-wolf rhetoric? How do we mediate between wolves and the ranchers and hunters who do not see the inherent worth wolves possess?
Bott: For many people, particularly in the West, wolves are a negative symbol. People hate the wolf, not because of what the animal is or what it does, but because of what it represents, which is unfortunate and unfair to the animal. Ironically, wolf advocates are terrified of losing biodiversity, so this fear pushes them to the extreme of promoting wolf propaganda wherever possible. The ranchers and the hunters who have been here forever are also terrified. They’re terrified of losing a way of life; of losing control of their lands due to government oversight; growing urban development; to new Westerners who are moving into their communities. Because of these fears, you have competing interests and this savage reality where there is a constant fight for power. Who should have the most power? Where should the power be allocated? Who becomes disempowered as a result?
At the center of it all is the wolf, which again is a representation of the Old West versus the New West. It’s such a tragedy that this animal has to be at the center of all of it. Wolves aren’t monstrous, blood-thirsty killing machines. They aren’t from Hell…but they aren’t from Heaven either. They’re extremely challenging to live with, they are dangerous and they can be very problematic. However, they are noble and magnificent and inspiring. So, if we can move beyond our own paradigms and we can try to recognize the wolf for what it is—a complicated animal living in a complicated environment—then I think we can begin to better coexist with the animal. We have to try and remove it from our personal narratives. We have to decenter the human and recenter the wolf.
Brief: For our readers who would like to experience these enigmatic beings for themselves, the best time to see wolves is the peak of winter, and Lamar Valley of Yellowstone’s northern range is the best spot on the planet for viewing. The wide-open expanse is lined with trees covered in glittering ice crystals. The snow lays thickly drifted on the sloping hills and can be seen faintly falling on a prowling wolf pack, which stands out in sharp contrast against the sea of white.
As of January 2021, an estimated 123 gray wolves were recorded in the park, spread among nine packs. Wolves take advantage of deep snow to prey upon long-legged, small-footed ungulates, which are less agile in extreme winter conditions. Greater Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. The sheer diversity and distribution of species make Yellowstone the optimal location for observing the complexities of predator-prey dynamics.
Natural Habitat Adventures has a dedicated team of Expedition Leaders composed of professional naturalists and biologists who possess intimate knowledge of wildlife behavior. Their constant communication with local wolf researchers grants travelers unparalleled access to wolf locations and activity. Travel with Nat Hab & World Wildlife Fund on any or all of our Wolf & Wildlife Safaris. We ensure private experiences and close encounters with the world’s most elusive wildlife.
War on Wolves
Wolves had all but disappeared from the contiguous United States when Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the northern Rocky Mountain wolf as an endangered species in most of the lower 48 states and designated the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as one of three recovery areas.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem encompasses an area between 12 and 22 million acres. The region spans portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; contains extensive climatic and elevational gradients; and intersects numerous social and political boundaries. The ecosystem is collectively managed by private individuals, in addition to federal, state and Tribal governments. Within Yellowstone National Park, no hunting or harvesting of wolves is allowed. However, because wolves do not recognize political boundaries and often move between different jurisdictions, the ones that move outside the park are shot on site.
Congress delisted gray wolves as endangered species in Montana, Idaho and parts of Utah, Washington and Oregon in 2011. They were delisted in Wyoming in 2016, and that decision was held up on appeal in April 2017. In 2020, the FWS removed federal protections from wolves across much of the U.S. Though hunting, poisoning and trapping are once again outlawed in 44 states, wolves still need urgent protection along Montana’s border on the northern range of Yellowstone National Park, as well as in other regions where harvesting quotas are too high to sustain healthy ecosystems.
Call To Action
The war on wolves is far from over. Due to the complexity of this environmental issue, I will be writing a follow-up blog post dedicated to the history of wolf conservation and management in the United States. I will also discuss recent updates in wolf regulation and legislation decisions. So stay tuned for Part II because your support can help us save a species!
If you need more inspiration, look no further than the “Big Bad Wolf” film. Aaron Bott’s closing sentiment still echoes in my mind…
“I want wolves on the landscape because they are symbols of a wilderness that I want to keep on this Earth forever. I want my kids to have wildness. I want them to have forests and mountains to climb. I want them to have moose and elk and bison. I want them to hear wolves. For my children, I want there to be a complete Heaven and a complete Earth.”