Western Wild

Dave Showalter's Conservation Photography Weblog


Our National Park Heritage

April 2, 2014 | Permalink | Post a Comment


“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!

Colorado Mountains, From The Vault

Sangre Skyline

March 27, 2014 | Permalink | 4 Comments
crestone needle, crestone peak

Crestones Panorama : Prints Available

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…)


Junction Butte Alphas

March 27, 2014 | Permalink | 2 Comments


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.

From The Vault, Wyoming

Night Witness

March 24, 2014 | Permalink | 2 Comments
milky way, upper hoback river

Hoback Milky Way : Prints Available

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.


San Luis Valley, A Different World

March 18, 2014 | Permalink | Post a Comment


“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!


50 Below!

February 28, 2014 | Permalink | 4 Comments

Lamar Sundog

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.

Sagebrush Sea

Freedom To Roam

February 21, 2014 | Permalink | 5 Comments
winter range, yellowstone national park

Winter Range : Prints Available

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.


Winter Comes

February 3, 2014 | Permalink | 3 Comments

Ponderosa Winter

“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.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR

Frosty Prairie Morning

January 29, 2014 | Permalink | 4 Comments
mule deer, buck

Frosty Mule Deer Buck : Prints Available

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…)



January 22, 2014 | Permalink | Post a Comment
sagebrush sea,wyoming,red desert,sweetwater county,sage spirit,killpecker sand dunes,tracks,contemplative,blue,gold

Boar's Tracks : Prints Available

Tracks in the Killpecker Sand Dunes Area Of Critical Environmental Concern lead from the Boar's Tusk, an iconic volcanic monolith. Early summer in Wyoming's Red Desert.

While hiking in the Killpecker Sand Dunes last summer, I turned around to see my own tracks in the sand leading from the Boar’s Tusk, a Wyoming Red Desert icon. I lined up the shot and made this image and a few other compositions before moving on. It’s a simple photograph that holds a deeper meaning for me. Following those same tracks back with darkness closing in, I thought about our short time here on this earth, that these tracks may last until tomorrow, representative of our occupation in the geologic continuum. The distant volcanic monolith has stood above this sagebrush desert for many millions of years, yet humans completely transformed the American West in a blink-of-an-eye 150 years. The human capacity to destroy is without equal, earth is getting smaller – our challenge is to leave only footprints in the most extraordinary places like Killpecker Sand Dunes.

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