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Wisconsin Film Festival: “Operation Wolf Patrol” recounts the legal circus behind wolf conservation efforts in our state

Hanna Kohn looks at the Wisconsin’s Own documentary that puts the welfare of wolves into perspective.

Header photo by Joe Brown

One part nature documentary and two parts legal circus, Operation Wolf Patrol (2020)screening virtually from May 13 through 20 at the 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival—portrays an ongoing standoff for ecological justice happening on public lands in Northern Wisconsin. As one might imagine, things get a little hairy. Although the focus of the film is on the efforts of the Wolf Patrol, who are devoted to the preservation of Wisconsin wolves, the narrative veers into the self-referential when director Joe Brown makes an on-screen appearance during a deposition for his lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s “hunter harassment” law aimed to prevent the filming of individuals hunting and trapping in public.

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The documentary shows the Wolf Patrol, led by seasoned environmental activist Rod Coronado, tackling a variety of projects like taking field data to submit to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, monitoring trail cams, as well as attending forums and information sessions. In the fall of 2015, Coronado is seen taking to a public hearing for the Wisconsin Assembly committee on Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage, and he likens the work of his organization to that of a health inspector coming into a restaurant to evaluate the health and safety practices of the establishment. All throughout, Coronado is met with intense antagonism, including warm un-welcomes, verbal threats, racist epithets, and physical endangerment. No stranger to conflict, Coronado uses his charisma and legal know-how to hurl politeness and cooperation in the face of confrontational hunters and law enforcement.

Most revealingly, Operation Wolf Patrol sheds light on the ambiguity that shrouds “hunter harassment” through a bureaucratic whirlwind of events. Hunters cry claims of illegality against the Wolf Patrol for filming their in-progress hunt and call officers who try to write tickets for the alleged crimes with no citation number on record. The officers tell the Wolf Patrol to check on the tickets at the county office the following day, only to discover there is no ticket waiting for them. Joe Brown seems keen to show that the legal battle over his documentary practice is staked in matters of express intention. He poses questions that relate to citizens’ rights to film what’s happening on public land in Wisconsin as a form of free speech. Or, is the act of wielding a camera as heavy as a gun? 

As the Wisconsin DNR seeks input from the public regarding the state’s wolf management plan (until May 15), there is literally no better time to take the welfare of wolves into consideration and watch Operation Wolf Patrol at the 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival. It screens alongside Orin & Kepa (2019), Caleb Alexander Peavy’s short documentary on the bond between an animal trainer and a wolf.

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