A helicopter blows into view, in urgent pursuit in the Ontario wilderness of something small and overmatched moving through a white expanse below. Soon enough the furry quarry — a gray wolf — is seen captured in the knee-deep snow of a frozen, remote landscape.

The action on the screen is arresting and methodical. It's also an enticing way into its purpose: The scene is part of a new documentary produced along with related lesson plans for school-age children to engage in the ongoing relocation of wolves to restore their population on Isle Royale, the national park in northwestern Lake Superior.

Phyllis Green, who managed the park for 18 years and retired in 2019, has been key to the educational piece. She said project organizers saw an opportunity to "use the excitement that wolves bring — positive or negative."

"They certainly elicit emotion," Green added, "and kids seem to enjoy learning about what's going on with them."

Wolves' decline and their vital role in the ecological balance of Isle Royale is central to the new film, "Return of the Wolves: Lessons in the Wilderness," produced by a key relocation supporter, the nonprofit National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation. Green is a board member.

The documentary, in part, details the island's geological and ecological beginnings and how its isolation makes it "a laboratory like no other." Gray wolves were moving toward extinction there in 2015 — there were nearly 50 wolves on the island in 1980 — when the National Park Service developed a plan to boost their numbers.

Decimated by disease and a loss of genetic diversity — vital for a species' resilience — Isle Royale wolves perhaps also are suffering from climate change. The winter ice bridges they historically have used to migrate to and from the island and Minnesota and Canadian wildernesses are not forming as often.

Too few wolves, the island's apex predator, has allowed moose and other wildlife like beavers to thrive, which in turn has pressured the island's forests and vegetation. It's estimated there were 1,500 moose on the island in 2018 — and two wolves.

The film follows teams of university researchers, tribal biologists, veterinarians and Park Service experts involved in the relocation project. For teaching purposes, the film also is segmented into three parts, focusing on an introduction to the island; the wolf as its apex predator; and the island's biodiversity and challenges. There also are complementary lesson plans for grades K-12.

Some of the teachers who wrote the curriculum came to the island in advance, took part in workshops and watched the documentary in progress to better understand Isle Royale and the wolf-moose research that has informed the relocation effort.

Lesson plans for grades 6 and higher employ the Next Generation Science Standards that teachers follow to help students think critically and problem-solve. For example, students are encouraged to analyze data and consider evidence that, in the case of Isle Royale, have disrupted the land's predator-prey relationship and what that means for the ecosystem's health.

Green thinks the island's ongoing story is one that curious young people can track into adulthood. The film and curriculum can be a gateway, she said, adding that as a middle-schooler she herself first learned about early studies of Isle Royale's wolf-moose balance. That research began in 1958, and Green followed its theories and new data over time.

"It's one thing to read a quick story because that is what you have time for … but through these lesson plans you can delve into what it really means and what should I be trying to figure out," Green said.

The film's action takes place between autumn of 2018 and 2019, predating the arrival of some of the 19 wolves from Minnesota, Ontario and Michigan's Upper Peninsula that have been captured and released on the island.

Some wolves have died, and COVID-19 has slowed some relocation efforts, as have failed tracking collars.

But new life on the island has been spotted. At least two pups were likely born in 2019, offspring from a relocated female that was pregnant upon arrival. Camera clips and scat collections indicate a pup or pups have been conceived on the island, too. Signs of reproduction at two ends of the island could mean the island now is home to two packs.

During the last survey by Michigan Tech researchers in winter 2020, the island's wolf population was 12 to 14 — offset by 2,060 moose counted in 2019.

Researchers are again surveying the park this winter, with some conclusions expected in spring.

"There are pups and the population is expanding as it should," Green said. "We just don't know who has mated with who, and how many pups did they get."

"Exciting to share"

Back on the mainland and in the cloud, the free documentary and coursework have been heavily downloaded and well-received since their launch in January, said Tom Irvine, the foundation's executive director. He said partnerships with organizations like the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., have helped spread word of their distribution.

Depending on the day, 30 to 100 curricula have been downloaded from the foundation's website (nplsf.org), Irvine said. That should increase March 7 when a Spanish version goes up.

"Return of the Wolves" gives teachers and home-school educators alike something unique to present in the shadow of the pandemic, Irvine said. "It's something new and exciting for them to share in this trying environmental period," he said.

Though polarizing subjects, wolves can help people think globally about ecological challenges, Green said.

"Wolves are found across the northern tier of countries. They are in trouble in many, many places," she said. "The more we understand the role they play and having them as a neighbor, if you will, will help people work through things.

"If they can do that for someone like they did for me, that would be super."