‘Epic Yellowstone’ captures the thriving ecosystem of the world-famous park

A new documentary series highlights the interactions of predator, prey and environment

gray wolf

BACK ON TOP  Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary Epic Yellowstone describes the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and the critical role such top predators play in the park’s ecosystem.  

Smithsonian Networks

“What you’re about to experience is Yellowstone as it’s rarely seen,” actor and Montana resident Bill Pullman says in the opening narration of a new documentary. Smithsonian Channel’s Epic Yellowstone, a four-part series that airs this month and will be available via several streaming services, puts Yellowstone National Park’s recovering ecosystem into the limelight. The park went nearly half a century with few top predators, and efforts to restore the resulting imbalance are just now taking hold. Following the lives of Yellowstone’s birds, mammals and even insects as they strive to survive, each episode follows a common ecological theme: the intricate web of cause and effect that exists among predators, prey and the environment.

That theme is especially apparent in the series’ second episode, “Return of the Predators,” which debuts March 17. It focuses on the return of the park’s top predators: gray wolves and grizzly bears. Gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, roughly 50 years after being eliminated from the area. And to turn around the loss of grizzly bears, which dropped to fewer than 150 individuals in the continuous United States, the bears gained protected status in 1975 by the Endangered Species Act. As of 2017, an estimated 700 grizzly bears and more than 100 gray wolves lived in Yellowstone.

The episode avoids the controversies, such as how the protection of wolves and grizzlies threatens ranchers. Instead, the show keeps the lens on the broader benefits of having these predators back in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Their return is now keeping in check elk and bison, whose populations boomed during the predators’ absence, resulting in overgrazed grasslands. And with wolves back in the picture, coyotes are dropping to more sustainable levels. Coyote numbers had ballooned without the wolves around, leading to a dramatic decline in numbers of Yellowstone’s pronghorn (the only animal with branching horns that sheds them annually).

To tell this story, the episode follows a year in the lives of a lone adolescent male wolf named Blacktail and a female grizzly bear named Quad-Mom. The bear earned her name after she successfully raised four cubs, a rare feat. The viewer is transported into dramatic scenes of wolves chasing down bison, and a mother bear with her two cubs working with a coyote to flush out young elk hidden among sage brush.

cliff swallow
EVERYTHING CONNECTS Cliff swallows will build their nests from mud formed from the tromping hooves of bison along a stream. It’s one such example of the interdependence of animals shown in Epic Yellowstone. Smithsonian Network

The series’ other episodes also follow individual animal characters to illustrate the ecological theme of interdependence. For instance, the third episode, “Life on the Wing,” which premieres March 24, follows the park’s many aerial residents, such as osprey and sandhill crane parents trying to keep their lone chicks alive. The episode also features stunning slow-motion video of dragonflies using their adept flying skills to catch smaller bugs on the wing, and nest-building cliff swallows collecting mud formed by bison at a stream’s edge. In the fourth episode, “Down the River Wild,” airing March 31, the focus is on the Yellowstone River and the many animals, including people, who depend on it.

Emotional music, breathtaking panoramas, intimate close-ups and stunning time-lapse shots create a gorgeous and engaging display of Yellowstone. But overwrought dialog (such as bestowing on a pack of wolves taking down a bison the “mythological status” of “true bison hunters”), the occasional incomplete story arc and sometimes flat, monotone narration distract from the dazzling cinematography.

These shortcomings, however, are minor. Epic Yellowstone overall superbly combines charismatic characters, dramatic video and detailed history to capture Yellowstone’s wild heart and illustrate fundamental concepts of ecology.

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