Jim and Jamie Dutcher have formed a nonprofit organization, Living With Wolves. The educational group aims to raise awareness about wolves, build tolerance, find solutions for ranchers and dispel myths.
Jim and Jamie Dutcher have formed a nonprofit organization, Living With Wolves. The educational group aims to raise awareness about wolves, build tolerance, find solutions for ranchers and dispel myths.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Wolves are intelligent, social animals that often are misunderstood.

For more than 20 years, Jim and Jamie Dutcher have focused on documenting the behavior of wolves and providing information to dispel the myths surrounding this keystone species.

“I’m a wildlife filmmaker, and I’ve produced films about mountain lions, beavers and undersea subjects,” explained Jim Dutcher. “I saw the wolf as being an animal that is misunderstood and secretive, and that attracted me. But little did I know 20 years later I’d still be involved with wolves.”

The couple lived with a pack of wolves for six years near Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness.

“A woman in Montana saw the mountain lion film I’d made and thought we could do some good for wolves,” Dutcher recalled. “There was a pack of wolves that was about to be euthanized, so she gave us pups.”

To gain trust with the wolves, the couple set up a tented camp and bottle-fed the pups from the moment they opened their eyes.

“If we went out to the wild to observe a pack of wolves, they are so alert and wary of people they would change what they naturally do and watch the filmmakers,” Dutcher said. “They would watch us observing them, and we wouldn’t really capture the relationships.”

By the end of the project, the pack had grown to 11 wolves.

“All behavior studies done on wolves have to be done in captivity because you can’t get close enough in the wild,” Jamie Dutcher noted. “Most studies are done in enclosures of one to three acres, but we had the largest enclosure in the world of 25 acres.”

However, she stressed, these wolves in no way were pets.

“They wouldn’t come to you if you called them,” she said. “But this was a way for them to be comfortable with us and our camera gear so they would go about their lives.”

The Sawtooth Pack taught the Dutchers many things during the time they spent with these family animals.

“They taught us about being a family and working together,” Dutcher explained. “One thing wolves do — that humans forget a lot of times — is they forgive each other.

“You’ll see two wolves have an argument and you can tell one is miffed with the other,” she added. “A few hours later, they’re friends again.”

And, Dutcher said, the wolves have a lot of heart and soul.

“I think a lot more people need to see and understand this,” she said. “It’s hard to watch wolves and not see your family dog and know we have wolves to thank for so much.”

Wolves will educate their young, protect the injured and nurse them back to health, Jim Dutcher said.

“We had a wolf that was killed by a mountain lion in our project,” he recalled. “The pack played every day, but they stopped playing for six weeks after that wolf died. The pack stopped howling as a group and howled separately. They really seemed to be mourning.”

After they completed three films about the wolves, the Dutchers thought about moving on to other subjects.

“But we kept coming back to wolves because they really need our help due to so much misunderstanding,” Jamie Dutcher said. “So our way to say thank you is now we’re working for wolves until there is a better understanding.”

“We put down our camera gear and formed a nonprofit group — Living with Wolves,” Jim Dutcher added. “On our advisory board we have scientists, biologists, ranchers, ethical hunters and tour operators. We’re pro-ranching, we work with ranchers on solutions to conflict.”

“It means having ranchers going back to methods they were doing 100 years ago when we were living with predators,” he said. “Our advisers on our board have had huge success with ranchers that have had issues with wolves predating on their livestock.”

As a keystone species, wolves are important to keep the ecosystem healthy.

“A keystone species is the dominant predator whose removal allows prey populations to explode, often decreasing the overall diversity,” Jamie Dutcher explained. “By keeping the ungulates moving, that keeps the land healthier which allows for other animals to thrive.”

For example, Jim Dutcher said, by reintroducing wolves into the West, elk have a predator to chase them around.

“Now the elks are up on the ridges and more alert,” he noted. “Along the rivers and streams, the vegetation has come back, and this had done many different things. It shades the water and makes it cooler and better habitat for trout, so now there are more trout, beavers and song birds, which make a more balanced ecosystem.”

In addition to the three films about wolves, the couple also wrote a book The Hidden Life of Wolves.

“We’re really proud of the book,” Jamie Dutcher said. “With all the information in the book, we hope we can bring about a better understanding of wolves.”

From March 22 to July 7, the “Living With Wolves” exhibit will be displayed at Chicago’s Field Museum.

“The exhibit includes our images and captions that describe the behavior of wolves, how they get along as a family and the hierarchy of the alphas,” Jim Dutcher said.

“The alphas are the only ones that mate, and that only happens once a year.”

The exhibit also features information about ranching solutions, myths about wolves and how hunting wolves makes it worse for the ecosystem.

“This is the second time we’ve displayed ‘Living With Wolves.’ The first time was at rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Wash ington, D.C.,” Dutcher said.

“After Chicago, the National Geographic Society will take the exhibit on the road, and it will become part of their stable of exhibits they distribute across the country in natural history museums.”

For more information about Living With Wolves organization, visit www.livingwithwolves.org.

More details about the Field Museum exhibit are available at http://fieldmuseum.org/happening/exhibits/living-wolves.