A national audience will get a rare close-up look at northern Minnesota's gray wolves beginning July 4 when Disney and National Geographic release a new nature documentary called "America the Beautiful" featuring some of the wolves and pups of Voyageurs National Park.
A preview of the series captures a group of pups taking their first steps outside of the den, wrestling one another and cowering from a strong gust of wind. The footage is special because even though Minnesota has the most wolves, by far, of any state in the nation outside of Alaska, they hardly are ever seen. They freely roam about half the state, but disappear into the cover of thick woods and bogs.
"I can't remember the last time Minnesota was featured in a national documentary," said Tom Gable, leader of the Voyageurs Wolf Project, which helped the documentary crew find the dens. "You just can't observe wolves in this area from miles away like you can in the arctic or Yellowstone [National Park]."
Minnesota is the only state in the Lower 48 to never exterminate its wolves, making those groups in Voyageurs part of one of the oldest wolf habitats on the continent. The state's population has been remarkably stable at just under 3,000 wolves since the late 1990s, giving researchers, ranchers, deer hunters and the public a wealth of knowledge for how to live alongside the predators and reduce conflicts with them. Some methods, such as building certain types of woven-wire fences to keep wolves away from livestock, may need to be adopted in other parts of the country as wolves continue to spread to more of their former range.
The Voyageurs Wolf Project, which gets the bulk of its funding from the state's Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, has worked for years to not only try to better understand how wolves survive and behave during the summer, but to make their findings easily accessible to the public. The project regularly shares trail camera footage and collar data on social media and has even attached cameras to some of its collared wolves to offer first-person views of a few weeks in the life of a Minnesota wolf.
Researchers with the project hope to peel back some of the myths and misinformation surrounding the highly politicized predators to show them for the sometimes shy, native creatures they are.
The wolves are set to appear in episode 105, called "Heartland," which will be available to watch on Disney+ on July 4.
The episode also will feature burrowing owls, long-legged little birds that once spanned much of Minnesota and nest in abandoned prairie dog holes. As Minnesota's prairie was lost, with more than 99% of it plowed or paved, so, too, were burrowing owls, which may now be entirely rooted out in the state.