By Bella Butler EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT
BIG SKY — Twenty-five years have passed since the wolf’s reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park, and on Nov. 15 and 16 the contentious tale was revived at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center via a performance of “HOWL! A Montana Love Story,” a Big Sky Community Theater production.
The play, written by local playwright Allyson Adams and directed by Bozeman native Cara Wilder, recounted the tangle of social tension alive in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem after the controversial decision to bring back one of the ecosystem’s top predators, which had formerly been eradicated by way of hunting over seven decades beforehand. Although centered on big picture themes as a result of the infamous biocontrol frenzy, the story focused on the narrative of the mysterious and enigmatic wolf No. 39, one of the original female wolves from the Druid Peak Pack.
Wolf No. 39 was portrayed through haunting dance sets by the play’s choreographer Jennifer Waters, and became the subject of dreams for Carly, a singer-songwriter and rancher’s wife played by Kali Armstrong, who also composed original music for the play. Niece of the famous astronaut, it’s clear greatness is in the family as she seamlessly danced between song and spoken story.
Carly is enchanted by the animal in her dreams and empathizes with the wolves, despite the prospect of being ostracized in her rural community. On the other hand, her boyfriend Quinn, played by Josh Allen, was among the many ranchers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that despised the wolves, finding them to be pesky predators that threaten their herds of livestock and therefore their livelihood. He characterizes himself within minutes of the actor’s first debut, claiming that “the only good wolf is a dead one.”
The disparity in positions fueled a growing sense of animosity throughout the show, interrupted only by moments of tragic longing and love.
Booze-drinking locals who frequently gathered at a Whiskey bar called The Grizzly echoed both Quinn and Carly’s beliefs, and the dialogue that took place at the watering hole painted a fair image of the mounting social battles incited by the wolves.
Among the typical locals, one patron of the bar was Sydney Rogers, played by Ashley Dodd, the wolf biologist charged with overseeing the reintroduction process. Rogers becomes somewhat of an ally to Carly, attempting to help her fight for on behalf of the canines.
Despite Carly’s attempts to protect wolf No. 39 and the integrity of the reintroduced species, her efforts ultimately ended in palpable heartbreak, with the death of her wolf companion and the dissolution of her fragmented romantic relationship.
Although the play is set in the 90s, the West is still embattled as it pertains to the watershed event. On Nov. 16, a panel discussion followed the show, comprised of Wilder and Adams, ranchers Roger Lang and Amber Mason, Yellowstone National Park Senior Wildlife Biologist Doug Smith and journalist Todd Wilkinson sought to shed a light on the issue as it stands today.
The diverse group was a testament to what many of them described as partially alleviated tensions related to the wolf reintroduction. Smith, who Adams admitted Rogers’ character was originally based on, praised the play’s rendition of the wolf project and its implications. “I didn’t know that the impact would be so extreme,” he said, “and you guys did that really well.”
Mason of the Ruby Dell Ranch said they currently employ range riders to mitigate wolf interaction with livestock, a concept introduced at the end of the play. This program allows for protection for ranchers while ensuring the wolf population remains intact, which Smith said will be roughly balanced at around 100 wolves this year after an overshoot in carrying capacity.
While time has remedied some social strain, Adams still seeks to forge a path to empathy. The playwright, a former mayor of Virginia City, said, “I want to give a voice to the extreme and the middle.” Adams is also trained in mediation and found that her background contributed to the intention of “HOWL!”: to allow people to see themselves on both sides.
Adams believes art has great power in mending rifts. John Zirkle, WMPAC executive director, parallels the sentiment. “Theatrical explorations of local issues are a great way to bring the community together around important topics,” he said.
And the Big Sky Community Theater, established in 2013, not only connects the community with relevant issues but also with each other. According to Zirkle, “HOWL!” attracted nearly 500 audience members over the two performances.
“There’s just something incredibly powerful about friends in the audience supporting friends on stage. That connection point is what forms the glue of community, and what roots us into the soil.”
Zirkle said the community theater takes projects as they come, and what performance the local audience will enjoy next year is still to be decided. Until then, the community will be left with the emotional reminder of an important piece of this area’s past, perhaps delighting in the “fruitful dialogue” intended by Adams.