Directed by: Thomas Winston, Eric Bendick | 52 minutes | documentary | Narrator: Bill Pullman
Yellowstone was declared a national park by the US government as early as 1872, the first area in the world to receive this honor. Still, that status did not hinder the steady decimation of the large predators naturally found in the American pearl. For example, in 1926, the last Yellowstone wolf was shot. The mighty grizzly bear never completely disappeared from the park, but it was close. At its all-time low, Yellowstone’s population was barely 150.
The disappearance of the apex predators did Yellowstone no good ecologically. The wapitik herds (the North American version of the red deer) in particular grew unbridled and devoured large parts of the nature reserve. This overgrazing had negative consequences for the entire ecosystem. Plant species disappeared, which in turn affected birds and many small mammals. The latter group also suffered greatly from the increasing numbers of coyotes, which took advantage of the wolves’ absence.
Progressive ecological insight led to the reintroduction of the wolf in 1995. The result was astonishing. The number of wapiti’s decreased not only because of active predation; the fear of wolves has also meant that moose are much more wary and spend less time in the same places. The result: restoration of vegetation, the growth of willow and poplar groves and an increase in the number of beavers because the deer no longer eat the banks. The return of the wolf has also led to a significant decline in the coyote population, a development that is beneficial to small mammals and the rare gaff antelopes. The whole ecosystem has therefore become a lot healthier due to the renewed presence of the wolf. The grizzly population has also reached a decent level over the years.
The title “Epic Yellowstone: Return of the Predators” gives it away, of course: it is the great predators of Yellowstone who steal the show in this beautiful nature documentary. The film is an episode of the American four-part “Epic Yellowstone”, which was produced in 2019 for the theme channels Smithsonian Channel and National Geographic. The protagonists are the lone wolf, seeking the warmth and affection of a pack, Blacktail, and the old grizzly lady Quad Mom (so named because her first litter was a quad, which is quite rare in bears). Several other inhabitants of the world’s oldest national park, such as the ubiquitous ravens, lightning-fast gaff antelopes, stately wapiti, robust bison, crafty coyotes and elusive cougars, also pass extensively or fleetingly.
In terms of camerawork, “Epic Yellowstone: Return of the Predators” is a fine piece of film work. Close-ups so sharp that you can almost count the fur hairs of the wolves and grizzly bears are interspersed with aerial images showing the vastness of Yellowstone. In addition, the film also contains quite a few action shots of hunting wolves and bears. The wolves glide gracefully and almost carelessly through the landscape as they chase their prey, aided by a tremendous endurance that we humans can only dream of. Bill Pullman’s somewhat lived-in narrative voice fits perfectly with the images and the story told.
Although the film sometimes lapses into light anthropomorphism, this never gets disturbing. The information provided is sometimes a bit on the scant side. It is also a bit unfortunate that, given the period in which it was made, the documentary does not mention anything but nature-friendly policies of the Trump administration. This has considerably expanded the possibilities to hunt wolves and bears. Yet “Epic Yellowstone: Return of the Predators” is a fine nature film that continues to captivate from start to finish.