Travels With Wolf Patrol: The Beginning                                                                                   Next Post 

Initially, I wasn’t sure I was going to find Wolf Patrol’s camp. I had driven 6 hours in the dark of a November night to meet Rod Coronado and a large group of activists who were planning on protesting the 2014/2015 wolf hunt in Wisconsin. Their plan was to shame hunters by photographing and video recording their activities on public lands. I had the name of a campground near Gordon, WI, to go on, and little more. Sure, I had met Coronado in person a month before when I traveled to his home in Michigan to pitch an idea for a documentary to him, but I didn’t know him well, and I wasn’t convinced he really wanted me along. In fact, Coronado had told me that I could join him on his Wolf Patrol campaign if one, “I wasn’t annoying,” and two, “I wasn’t with the FBI.” 

Coronado had reason to be suspicious. His 30-year history in radical environmental activism had landed him in prison for arson and other crimes related to animal liberation. He was just off probation and had sworn off radical environmental action, but he assumed the feds were still monitoring him.

 

All of this ran through my mind as I drove, without the aid of GPS navigation, along some large body of water called a “flowage.” At the end of the road I found Coronado and his fellow wolf-patrollers. It was cold. The stars shone bright in the October sky and the group’s small campfire drew me in. Coronado didn’t seem to be worried about me, “being with the FBI,” and welcomed me as if I was one of the crew. I quickly set about filming the activities of the camp from a distance. Both myself, and a reporter doing a story for VICE, danced nervously around the group of activists, as we knew many of them were protective of their identities. Not much transpired that night; I was just glad I had found the group, and that the project seemed to be off to a decent start.

 

My phone alarm rang a few hours later and I quickly jumped up and out of my tent. It was 4 am; I wanted to catch the early activity of the camp. A few people milled about a small fire making coffee. They grumbled about the presence of the camera, and worked to fix some sort of vegan breakfast. Coronado was amongst the earliest of risers; this was something I would come to learn was characteristic of him– he was always up first even if he had gone to bed last, which was most of the time. 

The Wolf Patrol crew in the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest.

Swallowtail butterflies congregate on fresh wolf scat in the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin. 

After breakfast Coronado talked logistics with the group, offered some encouraging words, and reiterated the purpose of this first Great Lakes region “wolf patrol”– capture images of a wolf in a trap to share with the world. A few activists expressed frustration; if they saw a wolf in a trap they were going to release it. Coronado firmly, but patiently, corrected them. Not on this campaign, not on his watch. He wasn’t about to go back to prison. Besides, it was more important to show the world the cruelty wolves were facing than to save one wolf. The Vice reporter jumped in one car, Coronado, I, and two other activists ended up in another. I offered them all video cameras, but none accepted. I was traveling with radical activists who intended on documenting the wolf hunt with cameras but who also hated social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and our hyper-mediated society. 

 

The next 8 hours were a blur. The wolf hunt began that morning but it was impossible to know where any of the hunters were operating. We drove hundreds of miles, through the towns of Solon Springs, Iron River, and further, into the wilds of the Chequamegon National Forest. The roads were dirt, and sand. A few leaves clung patiently to the trees, waiting for one last gust to send them flittering to their final resting place. Coronado drove and scanned the ground for animal tracks. He stopped every 5 minutes or so, jumped out of the car, and with coffee in hand followed canine tracks along the side of the road. There were wolves in the area.

 

Coronado grew up hunting in the San Francisco bay area. He knew his way around the woods, but he wasn’t 100% sure of how to find a wolf trap in the forests of northern Wisconsin. Traps are buried. Hunters put a lot of effort into erasing all trace of their presence. The only tell tale sign might be some sifted dirt, or the musky scent of a liquid attractant / lure. None of us had the nose of a wolf, however, and all we could do was look for trucks parked by the side of the road that might indicate hunting activity.

 

The day wore on. We drove a few hours back to camp to reconvene with the other half of the group. No one had seen any hunters, but one activist had seen a wolf! There was much excitement; even Coronado hadn’t seen a wolf in the wild. A few activists wandered off to nap in their tents but Coronado wanted to keep going. He, the Vice reporter, another activist, and I set back out on the road. If there were wolves in the area, there had to be hunters, and we weren’t going to miss them. We drove for a few more hours, but we still hadn’t seen anything, and the group’s energy was running low. Coronado wanted to push on, and after another changing of the guard we were off in hopes of finding a hunter checking his traps before nightfall.

At this point I was delusional. I had slept 3 hours and had been riding along and filming for about 13 hours. I had serious doubts about the possibility of finding a hunter, let alone one with a wolf in a trap, but then, things changed.

 

An ATV pulled out of a side road and sped off in front of us. Coronado pointed out the dangling buckets and long catchment pole that are necessary for trapping. The buckets contain the various scents hunters use to set a trap. The pole comes with a snare like cable for looping around the necks of wolves, or more likely, unwanted animals that end up in the trap (a wolf would be “dispatched” if found in a trap). Our truck sped up as Coronado punched the gas– we needed to keep up with the ATV but we didn’t want the rider to realize we were behind him.

 

We drove into the ATV’s dust trail and Coronado eased off the gas a little. We wanted to find this hunter’s trap-line; we didn’t need to be right on his tail. Suddenly, the dust vanished and we saw the ATVs tracks run up a muddy trail that was too narrow for our truck. Coronado raced down a side road and leapt from the truck leaving two other activists and myself to catch up. We sprinted up the trail and quickly got separated. Coronado and I went one way, two other activists– both women, ran ahead with their “point-and-shoot camera”. The woods were quite, Coronado wore camouflage, and when the sound of the ATV split the silence he sprinted off the trail to disappear into the thick of the trees. Caught in the moment, I followed, even if I wasn’t completely sure why we were hiding. I later realized that this was Coronado’s normal reaction– 30 years of eco-sabotage had conditioned him to run rather than be seen, even if this time he wasn’t doing anything illegal.

 

While Coronado and I hid in the woods the other crewmembers sauntered up the two-track and came across a hunter setting his trap. Video they took with their point-and-shoot camera shows the hunter acting startled and spinning around with a small shovel to defend himself. Relieved that the women aren’t bears, he lets his guard down, and launches into conversation with the two young women who say they are, "out looking for birds.”

 

By the time Coronado and I caught up with the women the hunter had left. He had shared tons of information with them about his methods, and we now had an active trap to monitor. Coronado and I shot a video with him doing a bit of a stand-up talk about the situation and the video eventually garnered thousands of views on YouTube. Wolf Patrol was now on the scene! Wisconsin hunters were being monitored. We set up a trail camera to keep an eye on the trap and left.

The Wolf Patrol crew huddles around a campfire while planning the next day's activities.  

Wolf scat with its characteristic twist and presence of fur. 

Spirits were high! We had gone from thinking this was a hopeless endeavor to actually finding a hunter with a trap in the ground! There was much chatter in camp that night; plans were made– we had to be up at 4 am to beat the hunter to his trap. Nobody wanted him to catch a wolf, but then again, they kind of did– just as long as they could photograph it first.

 

Wisconsin forests are dark in the wee hours, but we decided we had to approach the trap without any lights. If there was a wolf, we didn’t want to spook it and cause it to harm itself by yanking at the trap any more than it had. We crept along the two-track trail, our breath turning to steam, being as quite as we could while stumbling along waiting for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. I ran a camera with a cheap night vision function but could only see a narrow slice of the landscape and the activists ahead of me. We approached the trap; I stumbled, almost fell, and heard someone say, “no wolf.” We changed the SD card in the trail camera and took off worried that the hunter might be on his way to check the trap.

 

At this point we planned to monitor that trap for as long as we could. No one else had found a hunter and the crew seemed to think this was our golden opportunity. A wolf was going to end up in that trap; everyone just knew it.

 

I’m not sure where the rest of the morning went, but I know we drove a couple hundred more miles looking for hunters. When we didn’t find any we returned to camp and the shit really hit the fan! As we pulled up Coronado noticed the other activists sitting in their car drinking beer. He rushed at them yelling, “what the fuck are you doing? Sitting in your car drinking?” Coronado explained that the cops would be looking for any reason to make them look bad and that the crew had to be careful not to make it any easier for them. The activist retorted, “we’re not kids, Rod, fuck off”!

 

Suddenly, morale hit a new low. They had found a trap, knew what they looked like, and thought they could find another, but a schism was developing fast. Some of the activists thought Coronado was treating them like children, and that he should not act as the leader since this group was anarchist by design. A meeting was called, the Vice reporter and I were pushed out of camp and told to shut off our cameras.

 

I watched the meeting from afar. Everyone was respectful, but voices were raised. The group tried to get to some consensus. Their activism and their approach to conflict was governed by mutual respect, but discussions about “process” went on for hours. In the end much of the crew left. Coronado told me the more radical amongst them didn’t want to “document” the hunt; they wanted to destroy traps. He asked them to leave, but when they did, they took the rental jeep and some other important equipment. Wolf Patrol had just got off the ground, but it was already facing growing pains.

 

Over the next few days I got to know Coronado quite well. With no jeep, I offered the crew my SUV. Sometimes we’d go out on patrol with 4 or 5 in the car, other times it was just Coronado and I. When it was just Rod and I we spoke of our lives exploring wild places, relationships, and his growing rift with the radical environmental movement.

 

We talked about the conflict the group had. He was upset that the group had splintered. He wanted to destroy traps and release animals, too, but he knew that the paranoia of our post-9/11 society did not serve activists very well. He knew that if the group destroyed any property they could go up on charges of “eco-terrorism, ” and, perhaps more significantly, that prison sentences for environmental activists were much more severe than they once had been.

 

Coronado was also frustrated with the changing nature of the radical environmental movement. He loved his fellow activists, but he worried that the movement was becoming more of a “lifestyle” movement than a movement concerned with biodiversity and all things wild. He had lost a whole day of this– one of his first Wolf Patrol campaigns, to conversations about process. He told me that he had sat through many process discussions about identity politics and “what pronoun” should be used when addressing various members of the activist community. This was all legit stuff, according to Rod, but it got in the way of doing the fieldwork that he felt the campaign really needed to do. He was also frustrated that he had to “babysit” some of the activists. What use are those who show up with no money, no food, and no transportation? Those who just want to hang out in camp, look at the trees, and drink beer?

 

At this point I figured I’d give Coronado my opinion. I had never engaged in a radical environmental action in my life. I like to fancy myself as someone with a “radical” mindset, but I was also far enough outside of the community that I thought I could comment on it in a somewhat detached way. So I told Coronado that when he decided to change his tactics from eco-sabotage to legal hunt monitoring he had made a profound change that moved him away from the movement. If the only thing the radicals brought to the campaign was the willingness to destroy property and break laws and Coronado was now forbidding this; then what did they actually bring? If they didn’t have any money, any food, or any transportation, they weren’t very useful to the campaign. Yes, they were people with great conviction and passion, and this should be admired, but conviction and passion need to be matched with skill, resources, and strategy.

 

Coronado listened and nodded. I think he saw my point. He was tired of herding cats. 

Rod Coronado affixes a trail camera to a tree in northern Wisconsin. 

The crew quickly adapted to the idea that they were becoming smaller in size. We heard that hunting quotas were filling up and weren’t sure how to respond. Wolf Patrol had planned to stay in the field for 2 weeks or more, but it wasn’t clear that the wolf hunt would go on for more than the remainder of the weekend. Apparently, the hunters were “enjoying” high success rates.

 

The last two days of the hunt were punctuated by repeated returns to the one trap we found on our first day out. The trap was still active and we had trail camera footage of the hunter returning again and again to see if he had caught anything. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he hadn’t. The trail camera video showed a deer walking very close to the trap but not stepping in it, not to mention two hunters who walked by the trap and came within inches of stepping on it.

 

The crew was disappointed that they hadn’t managed to get a photograph of a wolf in a trap, but they were edified by the fact that they had learned to identify trap locations. Indeed, the crew had begun to find traps frequently, and the concerning thing was that many of these traps were set right on the edge of a road. Anyone walking along the road by them self, or with a pet, had a good chance of stepping on one if they weren’t being careful. This caused the crew to adopt a negative attitude towards hunters in the area. In their eyes, the hunters were just plain lazy. To stress this point, and to show that Wolf Patrol was on to the practice of trapping along forest roads, the group put out a video that depicted them using metal detectors to identify trap locations. They weren’t going to destroy traps or violate any hunter harassment laws, but they were going to “out” trapper’s for their laziness.

 

In the end, the Wolf Patrol campaign didn’t have to stay in the field for two weeks. Hunters took 156 wolves in the first 3 days of the 2014 season and the Wisconsin DNR shut down the hunt. The crew had mixed emotions. They were glad the hunt was over, but they were devastated so many wolves were killed in such a short time. They were also upset that they hadn’t had much success in finding hunters, and that they hadn’t photographed a wolf in a trap.

 

Still, the first Great Lakes Wolf patrol had garnered a good amount of media attention. And hunters were going crazy about the crew’s presence on social media. Some stated that they would poach wolves if they had to, and others suggested that they would pull a gun on the Wolf Patrol crew if they saw them in the field.

 

Coronado and the few remaining Wolf Patrol crewmembers had struck a nerve. They knew much more about wolf hunting then they had previously, and they seemed to have worked out a good social media strategy. Rather than quit, they decided to ramp up their efforts, and they turned their eyes west, to Montana, where wolves were being hunted at the edge of Yellowstone National Park. 

Read the second edition of, "Travels With Wolf Patrol: Montana"

Read about Operation Wolf Patrol director Joe Brown's attempts to photograph wolves here. 

J. Brown Films 2020