Greater Sage-grouse Female and Displaying Males In Snow – April in the heart of Greater Sage-grouse habitat. Sublette County, Wyoming
As snowfall steadily increased under a pewter sky, male Greater Sage-grouse did their best to impress the few females on the mating ground, or lek in a remote sagebrush setting south of Pinedale. The chests puffed up-yellow air sacs full-tail fanned-filo plumes standing tall on top of their heads display of male Greater Sage-grouse is said to be one of the most impressive in the animal kingdom. They sure work hard at it – every morning from mid-March into May, they arrive in darkness to perform their ancient ritual. Females will choose who to mate with and one male on a lek will do 80% of the mating. Sage-grouse are particularly vulnerable on a lek, where golden eagles can spot them at long distances. I found this particular lek when I saw a pile of feathers nearby, a telltale sign that an eagle had made a kill for an easy meal. But eagles aren’t why Sage-grouse are an Endangered Species Act (ESA) candidate species. Humans have fragmented the sagebrush landscape with development, powerlines, roads, and mega energy development; resulting in a steady decline, a death by a thousand cuts. They are the ultimate indicator species, spending their entire life in sagebrush. Although the lead up to a September, 2015 ESA listing decision places Greater Sage-grouse in the spotlight, mule deer and sagebrush “obligate” songbird declines are tracking with grouse. It’s an alarming situation that may seem all about grouse, but conservationists understand the entire ecosystem is in collapse. Audubon Rockies has assumed a leadership role with a clear vision through their Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative and Wyoming has adopted the core habitat strategy to protect and conserve critical Greater Sage-grouse habitat. There’s a head-spinning amount of activity surrounding the Sage-grouse recovery effort, which continues to ramp up. Things are often complicated in the West, particularly when grouse live on top of enormous oil and natural gas deposits. The solutions are simple – respect wildlife by giving them freedom to roam and muster the courage to leave their remaining habitat undeveloped. The female Greater Sage-grouse in this photograph will mate and retreat to a nest under a sagebrush where she’ll sit on 6-10 eggs. A few will probably reach maturity and return to this same lek as they have for thousands of years, vital to the survival of the species. What can you do? Contact the good folks at Audubon Rockies and let them know you’d like to help. And of course I’ll always be happy to talk to you about Sage-grouse anytime.
“Roosevelt Arch Winter Night” Yellowstone National Park, Montana. So brutally cold, with a -50 or so windchill, I could only manage one shot at a time before plunging hands in pockets. The arch is lit by a glow from Gardiner, MT. Travel further and you’ll be greeted by glorious and absolute darkness.
The words above the arch resonate deeper on each visit, all in caps: FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE. All people, everyone welcome, our first national park, the first in the world, come enjoy. Created by an act of Congress in 1872, Yellowstone is still the gold standard. Not only is Yellowstone emblematic of the wild, it is the only fully intact ecosystem in the Lower 48. Every animal that’s supposed to be here thrives in Yellowstone. Of course things get more complicated when animals humans consider inferior wander from the park; but that’s a story for another day. From toothy predators to micro organisms in thermal pools, Yellowstone is sharing new lessons every day. Now a new bill (1459) authored by Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) would ban any new national parks. Banned, as we’ve protected all we can, learned all that we need to from nature because it’s time to take more. The same Congress that closed our parks just last fall, robbing millions of inspiration, and stealing billions from local communities in a peak tourist season, would ban any more parks. Parks give in countless ways, and I’ll admit that not all can be measured on a balance sheet. But it’s not up to a tin badge politician to decide how and whether we can be inspired. We need more parks, more wilderness, wilderness study areas, more kindling for the human spirit. The rate of development is far outstripping conservation – we’re giving away public lands to developers who are embezzling our natural heritage. Let’s kill this bill and elect people willing to stand for wilderness. I’m writing some letters to our Colorado elected officials today – just wrote to Congressman Ed Perlmutter. Please join me and write to your local congressman/woman. They need to hear from us!
From the summit of Humboldt Peak (14,064'), the Sangre De Cristo skyline, a 14er climber's paradise L to R: Crestone Needle (14,191'), Crestone Peak (14,294'), Kit Carson Mountain (14,165'). The bold pyramid shadow is of Humboldt, the peak we're standing on. We made the climb in the dark - me, Marla, Chris, Annie, and Mike were the crew, an ambituous 2:30 a.m. alpine start got us to the summit on time for a spectacular sunrise.
* This image is available as a print. When ordering, the length will be the long dimension in the order box, but the height will be less. For example: A 45
A little digging led me to this panorama of the high Sangre De Cristo Range. I’m not sure what took me so long, it’s what my friend Todd Caudle calls a “hard drive treasure hunt.” The cool thing for me is the memory of climbing Humboldt, a pretty “easy” 14er, with friends in the dark, then watching a gold sunrise followed by an amazing cloud show. It was of our most memorable days in the mountains, anywhere. The Sangre De Cristos hold a special attraction, blocks of stone that you can see from many viewpoints in the valley far below, but you have to earn each summit. It feels special and rare to stand on one of these majestic peaks. When you click on the image, be sure to click on the larger view option below the photo to see it bigger. With mountains, bigger is better. (more…)
Wolves 755M and 889F, The Alpha Male (L) and Alpha Female (R) of the Junction Butte Pack in a world of white. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone wolf watching may have changed with the demise of the Druid Pack and decline of the Lamar wolves (due to legal killing on the edge of the park – I can’t bring myself to call it hunting), but it’s still considered the best place in the world to observe wolves in the wild. It’s hard to believe that just last month I watched the Junction Butte Pack’s alpha pair chasing each in a swimming motion through deep snow. It was mating season and the amount of ground these wolves covered in just a few hours, in bottomless snow, left me awestruck. Athletic, graceful, and indefatigable, they briefly tied up on top of a distant round hill, rested for awhile, then continued the chase. Wolves were running everywhere, howling, joining different packs, uncaring of bystanders, appearing on hilltops and racing over rolling sagebrush hills. 755M is a five year old black phase gray wolf, turning gray with age. 889F is a two year old female.
The Milky Way over forest in the Upper Hoback River Valley on a typically clear night in northwest Wyoming. The Upper Hoback was leased for industrial scale natural gas drilling - the grassroots opposition group Citizens For The Wyoming Range won an important victory when The Trust For Public Land purchased the leases and retired them forever. The land has been returned to the American people, forever wild.
Lately I’ve been writing for Sage Spirit and getting caught up in reflecting back on ephemeral moments, small details along a six year journey. A running theme is dark and quiet – wild places actually become dark and quiet at night and it’s a wonderful way to gauge wildness. There are fewer of these places all the time. While photographing an assignment in the Upper Hoback for Trust For Public Land last summer, I watched the sky turn blue-black and the Milky Way emerge as absolute darkness took late lingering summer light. Planning to get some sleep, this night sky would have none of that, captivating me for a few images, then a few more. There was no moon to interfere with the brilliance of stars or the Milky Way, just a line of pine trees silhouetted across the bottom of the frame. We’ve seen what happens to places like this when drilling comes – this special place escaped the drill and will remain blissfully dark and quiet, wild. Let bears, wolves, and mountain lions own the night.
“Dune Patterns” Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
We had our fourth annual Sandhill Crane Photo Workshop at Zapata Ranch in the San Luis Valley last week with a great group of photographers from all over the country. The one constant is Zapata Ranch hospitality, but it’s remarkably different in the valley year over year. Michael Forsberg, naturalist John Rawinski and I try to mix things up and keep a flexible schedule. Thousands of mostly Greater sandhill cranes were there, but not in the usual spots, the wind didn’t blow, and the high Sangre De Cristo Peaks lit up every morning as sunrise grazed their 14,000 foot summits. We made two trips to nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park, where towering dunes pile up against the flanks of the Sangres. Dune fields sprawl out 50 miles square and literally look different every day, shaped by wind. Besides making many excellent crane images, our group explored the dunescapes and made many fine images in the eco-zone where Medano Creek divides the dunes and rabbitbrush/ponderosa, which transitions to piñon-juniper forest below the peaks. It’s a landscape rich in biodiversity. This image is a simplification of just dune ripples leading to higher dunes in the last hour of daylight.
The 2015 Sandhill Crane Workshop at Zapata Ranch will be in early March. Let us know if you’re interested!
A sundog over Lamar Valley in brutally cold consitions. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
You expect cold in Yellowstone and I’d heard reports of fifty, even 60 below, but in many winter trips Marla and I had never experienced that special kind of cold. Until now. On a trip for the Sage Spirit project, I woke to -31F in Gardiner, which froze my battery, but I was on my way with a jump from a kind fellow who was there to watch wolves – everyone is there to watch wolves in winter. I knew it was cold in Lamar Valley, really cold, but I still made some landscape images and my camera gear was fine. The Lamar wolves were up on a ridge feeding on an elk and out of photography range. As the sun rose, I spotted this sundog above the valley, they appear when sun rays refract off of ice crystals suspended in the air. I found out later the temperature in Lamar was -54F that morning, a special kind of cold.
Elk seem to pour from the Garvelly Mountains northwest of Yellowstone National Park. I made this photo while flying with Lighthawk - the aerial perspective needed to show the grand scale of large elk herds moving to winter range. Across the West, ungulates migrate out of deep snow to wind-blown lower elevations, needing Freedom To Roam to forage for survival.
On a winter aerial mission with LightHawk,flying with friend and outstanding pilot Chris Boyer of Bozeman, sunlight broke through to highlight the tracks of elk flowing from the Gravelly Range. Thousands of elk in herds of hundreds dot the snow-covered Madison River Valley, descending from mountains locked in deep snow to open range scoured by wind. In some areas we could see bare dirt, dug up by elk hooves pawing at the frozen ground. Although the Big Sky Montana landscape feels unbounded, wildlife need vast areas to migrate and find food to survive a long, harsh winter. National Parks, with their perfect borders drawn by man, can’t sustain all of Western biodiversity. It’s up to us to make room.
This mission is part of the Sage Spirit conservation project, supported by iLCP. LightHawk has generously provided all of the flights in over five years of work.
“Ponderosa Winter” A winter morning in the ponderosa pine forest abover Boulder. Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, Colorado
Our winter on the Front Range shortgrass prairie was just little skiffs that quickly melted – until this week. Heavy snow in the mountains is no guarantee of snowfall for us, but this time everyone got their share. As you rise in elevation, the grassland around Boulder gives way to ponderosa savannah, a mix of tallgrass species and ponderosa pine forest. Just a little higher is all ponderosa forest and erratics, giant boulders carried on glaciers when the land was carved. I’ve visited this peaceful spot many times, each moment as unique as snowflakes, quiet on the edge of the city.
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A large mule deer buck pauses on a frosty winter morning with a backdrop of Colorado's Front Range. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR is known for big mule deer and trophy-sized bucks.
Winter mornings after fresh snow are a highlight on any prairie lovers calendar and yesterday was magical for me. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is an urban refuge gem, especially when the conditions are just right. Here’s a few images from yesterday, when it was one degree at sunrise: (more…)
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