Little Bear Peak (14,047′) From Blanca Peak Summit (14,345′), Sangre De Cristo Wilderness, Colorado
Depending on how you count them, Colorado has between 54 and 58 peaks over 14,000 feet and it’s a big thing for adventurers to climb them all. There are main peaks and sub-peaks, and there has to be a 300 foot drop between the main and sub-peak for the smaller mountain to count as a fourteener. Mountain geek stuff. Marla and I have been plugging away on the list for over 20 years and have summitted 45 fourteeners now, some more than once, so we have nine or ten left. Each peak has its own special challenges – distance, remoteness, weather on a given day, route-finding, altitude fickleness, fatigue, etc. It’s inevitable to climb the easiest and close to home peaks first, then gradually spread your wings until you’re left with ten technically challenging peaks, the ante upped, with enough risk to question commitment. That’s where we’re at. On our recent climb of Blanca Peak, Colorado’s 4th highest at 14,345′, and one of the four sacred peaks to the Navajo, we studied Little Bear Peak. Despite it’s gentle name, Little Bear has a bad reputation, randomly taking a life with rockfall or some other twist of fate. The only good route passes through the hourglass, a narrow class 4 bowling alley of loose rock. Guidebooks suggest avoiding weekends and climbing early, so no one is above you in the hourglass. Rockfall is never good, especially when there’s no escape. As we studied Little Bear from Blanca’s glorious summit, we asked ourselves why? Do we need to climb that mountain and take on unnecessary risk? What’s this quest about, destination or the journey?
Sunrise grazes Warbonnet and Warrior Peaks reflected in Lonesome Lake. The Cirque Of The Towers is a world-renowned climbing area in the southern Wind River Range; the remarkable, vertical granite faces offer unlimited climbing options.
It’s hard to get back to places, but seven years later we made it back to the Wind River Range. The ’07 trip was a circuit in the northern part of the range, the New Fork River drainage. We’ve wanted to see the legendary Cirque Of The Towers and Deep Lake was a high priority, so we headed to the southern Wind River Range, southeast of Pinedale, Wyoming. (more…)
The Mighty Wind River Range Rises Above Lozier Lakes, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
As my thoughts drift to the wild and vertical Wind River Range, it’s time to take a break…
Justin Hawkins takes in the view of the mighty Absaroka Mountains. Shoshone NF, Wyoming
Jeff Welsch of Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) revisits the Absaroka iLCP 2011 expedition that I photographed for GYC in this new National Geographic Newswatch article: Yellowstone’s Wild Front Porch
Most of the Absaroka-Beartooth Front is now protected!
GYC’s vision and advocacy brought folks together and informed the twenty-year plans for Shoshone NF and BLM lands on the Absaroka Front that now protect most of these ecologically and culturally sensitive habitats. It’s an honor to have worked on this project with GYC and iLCP and to know that my images, GYC’s vision, and GYC/iLCP’s collective outreach efforts made a difference. Thanks to GYC for making iLCP (and me) central to your A-B Front campaign!
Marla and Abby Above Fremont Lake Near Pinedale, WY, December, 2011
*Note: This post is different from my typical conservation messaging. It’s intended to help us grieve, heal, and celebrate Abby’s life.
She came to us on a west wind. With arrangements for a house visit, a lady from Safe Harbor Lab Rescue brought Abby to our home in December, 2006. This beautiful six year old yellow lab had a sweetness about her that was unmistakeable. The Safe Harbor Lab Rescue lady asked if we’d like to keep her for a night, we did, and it started snowing non-stop until three feet had piled up. That night turned into three nights; by then we were fully bonded with “Sunshine”, her name then. We picked her up at Pat and Kevin’s foster home, took care of paperwork at Safe Harbor, got her chip in case she got lost, and renamed her Abby. Abby The Labby, our first female. We soon discovered that she had a wild side and could run like the wind, like no lab I’ve ever seen. She’d pin her ears back and take off – after small birds, a rabbit, deer a half mile away. We worked with her to reign in some of that boundless energy and celebrated her spirit with every adventure. Marla taught her how to swim at Tucker lake, swimming out ten yards and cajoling Abby to join her, front paws slapping the water to a froth. She climbed seven fourteeners with us, shared our tent on backpacking trips, snuggling between our sleeping bags on chilly nights. When I’d get up to photograph, Abby would take over my down bag and nestle in with Marla until sun warmed the camp. She and Marla were running buddies too – early morning trail runs on all the local trails, best pals joined at the hip. Oftentimes, I’d be hiking along while they ran and Abby would come flying up to greet me, Marla right behind, smiles all around. Pat and Kevin, her foster parents, kindly watched Abby during our extended trips, a homecoming with Buck, Berit, and a host of other dogs. We never worried and are sure grateful for their friendship. (more…)
Greater short-horned lizards, also miscalled 'horny toads' are native to the sagebrush ecosystem, living in semi-arid plains to lower mountain elevations. I photographed this female while working with PhD candidate Reilly Dibner from the University of Wyoming in Shirley Basin. Shirley Basin is situated between Casper and Medicine Bow, a wide-open and undeveloped mixed shortgrass prairie and sagebrush basin on BLM land. Although a species of special concern, Wyoming's state reptile seems to be doing well in Shirley Basin.
Holy cow! The last few months have been wild, a loose-ends tour of sorts to capture images for the coming Sage Spirit book. I feel like Johnny Cash: I’ve been to Pinedale, Jackson, Craig, Hayden, Montrose, Gunnison, Laramie, Medicine Bow, the Red Desert and places between. I guess I can’t rhyme that like Johnny. Just recently, I’ve photographed sagebrush songbirds on nests, grizzly bears, wildflowers on a ranch under conservation easement, Greater short-horned lizards, and a bunch of other stuff. I think I’m done shooting for the book and a multimedia campaign with a top U.S. publisher will be launched in the summer of 2015. Stayed tuned, and please let your conservationist friends know that partnership opportunities are available – just give me a call.
“Elkhead Ranch Paintbrush, Hayden, Colorado” Thanks to rancher Heather Stirling for sharing her magical piece of Colorado!
“One Year-old Cubs of Grizzly Sow 399, Grand Teton National park, WY”
“Sage Thrasher Eggs On Nest, Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming”
Ramparts Of The Wyoming Range, Sublette County, Wyoming. LightHawk Aerial Support
My first LightHawk mission in 2009 was planned to make images of areas in the Wyoming Range threatened by planned natural gas development. Back then, I was nauseous the entire time in flight and clueless about the speed and willingness to fail necessary to make good aerial images. Pilot Chris Boyer could hear my shutter clicks in the headphones and cajoled me to shoot more, shoot fast. That trip was a first step to many more LightHawk missions, each one with a specific conservation target. “The unique perspective of flight” is important in story-telling photography, the scale and sense of how all the pieces fit together can’t be shown any other way. It doesn’t replace traditional, on the ground image-making, but it’s a key part of conservation “documentary photography”. I had the privilege of flying with Chris again in February and look forward to many more opportunities with LightHawk, a great organization. What happened with the Wyoming Range? The Upper Hoback is protected and a 44,720 acre area known as The 44 is still in dispute – it’s all wild today.
A male Gunnison Sage-grouse displays on a lek in the Gunnison Basin, Colorado
April is mating season for Sage-grouse in the West. There are two species: Greater Sage-grouse, which are more widespread, larger grouse; and Gunnison Sage-grouse, which are primarily located (87% of the total population) in the Gunnison, Colorado Basin. Gunnison Sage-grouse also have smaller, satellite leks, or mating grounds in west and southwest, CO and eastern Utah. Both Sage-grouse species are candidates for listing as Endangered Species, and Gunnison Sage-grouse are America’s fourth most endangered bird behind the ivory-billed woodpecker, California condor, and the whooping crane; but they are not on the endangered species list. Already endangered when they were recognized as a separate species from Greater Sage-grouse (GS-g), Gunnison Sage-grouse (GuS-g) have been the focal point of a regional collaborative initiative to improve habitat and recover the species. GuS-g were scheduled for a new listing decision this month, but the listing has been delayed, again. Would GuS-g benefit from listing? I don’t know, it’s a complex issue, but I do know that the extended Gunnison community has collaborated in the spirit of saving their namesake species and set a great example in the rural West. There are roughly 4,500 GuS-g in existence, total. They have a different bubbles popping vocalization than GS-g, are about 2/3 the size of GS-g, have broad white bands on tail feathers, and thick filo plume “pony tails” that flip up when males display for females. They also lek differently (in my observation), frequently using very large areas and splintering into small groups, using sagebrush for cover; presumably from predators. Golden eagles are the top predator of both Sage-grouse species, an easy target when they’re on a lek, displaying out in the open. Both Sage-grouse species live their entire life in sagebrush, and considered sagebrush “umbrella species”, meaning that by conserving sagebrush habitat, we help out the other 350 or so species that rely upon healthy, contiguous sagebrush habitat. Those species are under the Sage-grouse “umbrella.” If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that my work is heavily focused on the sagebrush ecosystem. (more…)
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.
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“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!
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