“Our first grandfather was given the task of naming everything. And he called to the creator and he asked, ‘Why does everything have a partner and I don’t?’ And the creator gave him the wolf.”
– Ojibwe legend
A Pocahontas County High School and Bethany College graduate is producing a documentary film about wolves. Julia Huffman, the daughter of Beth Little, of Hillsboro, is an independent filmmaker and acting instructor, now living in Sherman Oaks, California.
Huffman’s documentary – Medicine of the Wolf – focuses on the plight of the gray wolf in America. Prior to European colonization, a half-million wolves roamed the North American wilderness, in coexistence with Native Americans. By the middle of the 20th century, gray wolves were close to extinction in the mainland U.S., due to habitat destruction and extermination efforts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the species as endangered in 1974.
In 2011, when the entire gray wolf population in the lower 48 states was less than 6,000 animals, the FWS declared restoration efforts a success and removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list – a move strongly opposed by environmental groups.
“I was aware that wolves were about to be de-listed and I was concerned, because I knew that the recovery rate was so minimal that wolves had only recovered five percent of their natural territory,” said Huffman. “There were actually wolves in West Virginia at one time.”
The de-listing gave control of wolf management to state legislatures.
“Quickly after wolves were removed, states with wolf territory, like Michigan, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Minnesota – the legislatures were all geared up to have a wolf hunt,” said Huffman. “That raised intense red flags for me, because wolves have only recovered minimally, and we turn around and hunt this very, very small amount of wolves that we spent 40 years to protect. It was very alarming to me.”
Huffman was heartbroken and angry about proposed wolf hunts.
“Like many people, I didn’t really understand how this could happen,” she said. “Originally, there supposedly was some scientific evidence about why we needed to have a wolf hunt. After looking into it further, I’ve been able to assess that there is no science to back it up – absolutely none. In my mind and most people’s minds, it was politically motivated.”
Despite opposition by a majority of the people, state legislatures authorized wolf hunts in several states. As a result, more than one-third of the gray wolf population in the mainland – 1,800 animals – were killed. An estimated 3,000 wolves survive, primarily in Minnesota and the Northern Rocky Mountains. Huffman chose the rugged back country of northern Minnesota to film her documentary.
“When we started bringing back the wolf, Minnesota actually had the largest number of wolves and now, it’s the place where they thrive the most,” she said.
Public opinion is largely against the hunting of wolves.
“People went kind of nuts when this happened,” said Huffman. “The majority of people were against the wolf hunt. The Minnesota DNR [Department of Natural Resources] actually did a survey before the wolf hunt and they said the reason was to find out what people thought about the wolf hunt. Seventy-nine percent of the people who took the survey were against the wolf hunt, yet they went ahead and had the hunt. The majority of the people are against the hunts, not only in Minnesota, but all over the Western and Lakes states.”
In Medicine of the Wolf, Huffman profiles wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg. A National Geographic photographer for more than 30 years, Brandenburg has spent 44 years photographing wolves at his home in the Minnesota wilderness. He directed and filmed the landmark BBC/National Geographic documentary White Wolf, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1986.
“Everybody said to me, ‘if you’re going to do a story on wolves, you’ve got to talk to Jim Brandenburg,’” said Huffman. “Jim Brandenburg is Minnesota’s national treasure. He’s dedicated most of his life to telling the real story about wolves. The real story about wolves is that wolves are not the big, bad, Red Riding Hood evil creature. They don’t want to be around people. Wolves are extremely afraid of people. When a wolf is trapped, a wolf doesn’t try to attack you, a wolf cowers.”
In recorded history, there have been only two documented fatal wolf attacks in North America, one in Alaska and another in Canada. Several nonfatal attacks have been documented over the years.
“Our society is still recovering from the propaganda from early settlement times, when wolves were competition,” said Huffman. “Our government basically wiped out wolves. They poisoned and exterminated wolves because the wolves were competition, especially during times of drought and famine. They were our competition, but there was propaganda that wolves are evil and bad. We are still recovering from that.”
In her film, Huffman examines the Native American perspective on wolves.
“We went up to a place called Red Lake, a reservation on the other side of Minnesota,” she said. “We interviewed a tribal elder and medicine man named Gichi-ma’iingan, which means Big Wolf. Another piece of the story for me was the native perspective. They have a very deep connection to the wolf and they believe that everything in life is a circle, and it is up to us to learn how to live in that circle. Most native groups across the country hold the wolf in high, high respect.”
Although most filming is complete, much work remains to be done on Medicine of the Wolf. Huffman received a first place award and a $20,000 grant for the project from the Humane Society, and is raising an additional $50,000 to complete the film.
“My hope for Medicine of the Wolf is to bring to the forefront of people’s hearts and minds the value and beauty of wolves, our similarities to them, and their importance in our ecosystem,” Huffman wrote on the kickstarter page.
Huffman’s family settled in the Lobelia area when she was four years old. Growing up in the country was a wonderful time for the future director.
“I have incredible memories as a young child,” she said. “We lived in this old farmhouse called Melby’s Mansion – it was up in Lobelia. I was four; my brother was six. The outside was our playground. I remember just being a young soul, just running through the woods. My brother and I would build forts in the forest and make believe we had little houses. I remember loving trees and being barefoot in the summertime and being in the creek. Particularly, I remember the connection to the land. I still have it. It’s very strong.”
During high school, Huffman volunteered at WVMR and had her own radio show. A gifted athlete, she ran track and played soccer for the Warriors.
“I had some very good teachers,” said Huffman. “Mrs. [Kathy] McGee, she was a math teacher. She really took to me. Mrs. McGee really took to me and Mrs. [Lou] Flegel was very supportive.”
Huffman graduated from PCHS in 1986 and attended Bethany College on a partial athletic scholarship. She received a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism at Bethany in 1990. After working in television production for four years with WSAZ in Huntington, she moved to Los Angeles. In California, she got some acting credits and worked as a producer with HGTV for four years. In addition to her film work, she teaches acting at her studio in Burbank, California.
To see a trailer for Medicine of the Wolf and more information, visit medicineofthewolf.com. A 30-day Kickstarter campaign is in progress to raise funds to complete the project. Donors can visit kickstarter.com and enter the search term, “wolf,” to find the project page. Kickstarter donations must be made no later than March 12. The director plans to finish the film by the end of this year and release it soon thereafter.