Gardiner filmmaker Bob Landis occasionally turns his lens away from warring wolf packs to focus on Yellowstone National Park’s little creatures. Like the ground squirrels he videoed last summer attacking a weasel or the raven he filmed as it battled a bald eagle.
After teaching math for 25 years at Senior High, Landis took on his new career in 1993, relocating to Gardiner to make a film about coyotes for National Geographic.
In 1995, he got the biggest break of his career — wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone.
“Thank God the wolves came here and there was a need for my services,” Landis said in a phone interview.
When we chatted at about noon on the day before Thanksgiving, Landis had already been out looking for wolves in the Lamar Valley and along Hellroaring Creek in Yellowstone. At 72, Landis still romps through the fields to get his shots. But even at the start of his film career, when he was 20 years younger, Landis discovered that the best wolf footage happens when they come to you. So patience is paramount in his line of work.
“If I get one or two sequences in a month, I’m lucky,” Landis said.
On the morning we spoke, Landis watched two wolf packs, but they were both a mile or more off the road. He could have chased after them, lugging his equipment with him.
“But if they see you, they run off,” he said.
It wasn’t a fruitful day for Landis, but 2012 has been good to him. He is showing and narrating 45 minutes of footage from 2012 as the featured speaker at the annual Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society fundraiser on Monday at Harvest Church, 1235 Wicks Lane W. The program, “Blacktail Ponds and a Tale of Two Packs,” begins at 7:30 p.m.
Landis said part of the reason 2012 was so good for filming was that two or three bison fell through the ice in the Blacktail ponds.
“This attracts the scavengers. It was something to watch for four days. I got some pretty nice footage of a sandhill crane coming in just because the raven and eagles were there.”
Landis said he will use that footage to discuss the importance of ponds in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Another exciting coup for Landis was filming battles between two packs of wolves fighting over the Lamar Valley.
“One was Mollie’s pack, which is a large pack of wolves, with 19 in it. They are an aggressive pack and the largest-weighing pack. I was doing a film on the Lamar pack and I filmed four major confrontations between the two packs. Two of the Lamar pack were likely killed because they went missing.”
Landis also got three film sequences on otters in Hayden Valley and the squirrels attacking a weasel.
Landis gives 20 or 30 narrated talks each year about his films and his experiences while filming. Ironically, giving narrated Audubon talks was his dream job when he was a teenager.
“When I was in my last year of high school, my dad and I went out on a big game hunt in British Columbia and we shot with a gun and a camera, using 16-millimeter film.”
Wolves became his subject of choice because they lead such interesting lives.
“Wolves have very fine social lives. They play and take care of the pups and they hunt, which is a dramatic opportunity to film,” Landis said.
Landis often sells raw film sequences to National Geographic for use in a film. Sometimes, he is surprised by the finished film because it is turned into a story that he didn’t predict. Since Landis’ first coyote film in 1993, he has created several other films, including one on otters and four wolf films. His most recent film, “Rise of Black Wolf,” chronicles the most fascinating subject of all — Wolf 302, which Landis nicknamed Casanova.
“He was a lover, mating with females in many different packs. Usually when the other wolves have done that, they get killed,” Landis said.
Before Wolf 302 died in 2009, Landis was able to shoot enough footage of him for three films.
“I learned over the years that you can have all these great behavior sequences, but story rules,” Landis said.