A Rant, Of Bison Selfies and Other Choices

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Bison cow with spring calf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

As a little kid on my first trip to Yellowstone, my mom denied my sister and me the chance to feed the bears, which made my parents the worst parents in the world. After all, everyone else was doing it. Yep, people were reaching out of their car windows to feed full grown grizzly and black bears comically standing on hind legs for a treat. This stupid human behavior that habituated apex predators was sanctioned by the Park Service, cheap entertainment for those of us who drove all of those hot miles. Wild animals for our amusement. Of course, I’m pretty happy now to have both hands and thankful to my mom for making that choice not to feed the bears for us. Later, realizing bear dumps and hand feeding were getting bears in trouble and causing all sorts of problems, the activity was stopped and it took awhile for bears to learn how to find their own food again. Flash forward 50 years and record mobs are descending on Yellowstone, taking bison selfies, walking on fragile, sacred hot springs, putting a bison calf in a car because “it was cold” or some such nonsense. I’ve witnessed plenty and would need a very good reason to visit Yellowstone in peak season, unless it was to head straight into the backcountry. See a bear, shout BEAR! and the chase is on, a horde inching closer and closer for THE shot with a phone or tablet. The thing that is supposed to differentiate humans from primates is the ability to reason; we can make choices rather than simply react without regard for the animal or others. Last year, more people were killed by bison than bears. Why? Stupidity. The literature tells us they’re dangerous, and certainly one ton animals are large, and they can run 40 miles per hour, with horns. So how fast could they close on you from 10 yards? We only have two jobs while in Yellowstone – witness and be aware – then let the joy wash over us. The bison selfie comes with a choice. Study the animal, then choose to make the best image you can from a distance. Shoot a short video and share it when you get home. Those guys that stuck a bison calf in their minivan, however well-intentioned, are stupid people. Had mom been nearby, she would have rammed and likely totaled their van, and it wouldn’t be her fault… Learn about the animal ahead of time, observe that beautiful red calf and marvel at how different they look from adults. Look around to see where the mom is – give them some time and space. Bison have been on this landscape, birthing red calves for thousands of years. Animals do die of course, then something eats them, nothing goes to waste, and the biomass is nourished. I wish I could offer advice for the guys who walked out on Grand Prismatic hot spring, but I can’t because they knew better. Ban those bastards from the park, from all parks; we don’t want to see your permanent footprints or you myopic sons of bitches in the spring. Was this sacred natural place not amazing enough for you? While hiking, I roughly estimate that 25% of hikers carry bear spray. A typical family of four that will spend $150.00 on dinner won’t pony up $50.00 for bear spray. So, who leads the hike? Or rather, who can you do without if you run into a grizzly sow with cubs? Buy the bear spray and give it to a ranger when you leave, they’ll find a use for it. Hell, you may even save a grizzly from an untimely death. The Yellowstone experience is so much more grand when we bear witness and soak it all in, find a rhythm and leave our baggage behind. If you’re going, read the new National Geographic dedicated to Yellowstone cover to cover. It’s that good, and informative. All Americans are stakeholders, we own a deed to these lands and we’re a part of this ongoing experiment. That rectangle way up in northwest Wyoming is actually the center of an ecosystem that looks more like an ink blot on a map, a complex web of life that includes us, where every living thing is connected and all of the animals that belong here, are here. Natural processes play out for eons and each of our impacts are multiplied by the millions of others who come here to be inspired. Leave things as they are, and tell folks back home about this amazing ecosystem, pay it forward. End of rant. “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

Ramparts

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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.

Pursue Ewe

Pursue Ewe

“Pursue Ewe” A pair of bighorn sheep rams chase a ewe through sagebrush flats in the North Fork of The Shoshone River Valley. Shoshone National Forest, WY.

What appears to be a larger bighorn ram chasing a smaller one is a bit of an illusion – there is a ewe behind the lead ram and they’re both chasing her. The chase during autumn rut lasted for several minutes at high speed in open country. Imagine my surprise when I edited these shots awhile after returning from the trip and saw two butts on the lead ram. However amusing, these creatures are amzingly athletic, even while running full-tilt through sagebrush. The peak of rut (mating season) for bighorn sheep in Greater Yellowstone is in the first two weeks of December.

Sandhill Crane Family

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Sandhill Crane Family : Prints Available

Sandhill cranes with colts (chicks) feed in a wetland near the Hoback River. The area was severely threatened by planned industrial scale natural gas development and is now protected. A strong grassroots effort led to the purchase of the gas leases by Trust For Public Land, who retired them forever - giving the land back to the American people. The Rocky Mountain Population of sandhill cranes are Greater sandhills that migrate from winter range at Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico to Greater Yellowstone from spring through the end of summer, where they mate and raise their young. By September, these tiny colts are juveniles ready to fly 500 miles to New Mexico. 

While shooting an assignment for Trust For Public Land celebrating the permanent protection of the Upper Hoback, Dan Bailey mentioned sandhill cranes with chicks. I said “Of course I’m interested!” before he was done asking. This family was on a perfect nesting site surrounded by water in a marshy wetland, next to the Upper Hoback River in southern Greater Yellowstone. The colts (that’s what sandhill crane chicks are called) were feeding around the adults, who weren’t concerned with the two-legged observers on the hill. Their second colt is to the far right. They didn’t like the coyote chorus that started up across the sage meadow, but went back to feeding as soon as the concert ended. It’s remarkable to watch these tiny colts raise their legs and peck for food just like their parents, although the adults were helping out with mouthfulls of aquatic vegetation. I’m preparing for my first trip to Bosque Del Apache NWR, winter home of the Rocky Mountain Population (RMP) that migrates between Greater Yellowstone and New Mexico. I might even see this family at Bosque. Around 20,000 of these prehistoric birds make the trip twice a year, just like they did when they flew over dinosaurs. You can’t help being fascinated with them for their strong family bonds, grace, human-like characteristics, and resilience in such a rapidly changing world. And although sandhill cranes are remarkably adaptable to change, it’s imperative that humans protect the most important habitat throughout the migration route to sustain another million years of migrations.

Ghost Of The Forest

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Great Gray Autumn : Prints Available

A great gray owl hunts with a backdrop of gold in Jackson hole. Great grays are our largest owl, standing as tall as 27'. This 'ghost of the forest' loafed in an aspen stand in the afternoon and became very active at dusk. Although considered uncommon, great grays can be spotted throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

Strix nebulosa

Although both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks remain closed, two great gray owls made my recent trip to Jackson, Wyoming a lot more enjoyable. It’s common for great grays to show up for a few days to hunt in a general area before moving on. Quite a few photographers and birders were thrilled to view these magnificent birds at close range on the edge of forest and a ranch close to town. I was fortunate to photograph the owls with Tom Mangelsen, a legend of nature and conservation photography and heck of a nice guy. Great grays are often called “ghosts of the forest” for their ability to blend into the landscape – in spite of their size. They are noble, stealthy hunters with an appetite for small mammals, mostly at the ends of the day. Continue reading “Ghost Of The Forest”

Yellowstone Grizzlies

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Grizzly Sow With Cubs : Prints Available

 "Quad mom", a Yellowstone grizzly sow who had four cubs in 2010, rests on a hillside with the two surviving cubs, now sub-adults. I had just watched these rather large bears breast feed in the sage. They'll be on their own soon and the sow will mate again.

I just returned from two weeks in Yellowstone National Park, where I was working on my Sage Spirit book project. I was mostly focused on grizzly bears that are in the lower elevation sagebrush flats and meadows in spring. As summer heats up, it’s more difficult to find grizzlies as they move higher. I visited “Quad mom” every day for the first week, observing the sow and her two surviving, and nearly grown cubs foraging in the sagebrush on Swan Lake Flats for hours each day. The bears would rock back and forth as they pulled on roots and dug for bugs, bulbs, rodents – anything to satisfy an omnivorous appetite. They spent a couple of days on a bison carcass across the meadow a half mile distant. I only saw the sow and sub-adult cubs one more time after they ran to the forest one evening. Maybe she sent the cubs out on their own and prepared to mate? We’re fortunate to be able to observe these noble creatures – long may they roam! Continue reading “Yellowstone Grizzlies”

“How Many Grizzlies Are Enough?”

Grizzly bear sign on the edge of the Washakie Wilderness at Jack Creek

The second article from the Absaroka Front Tripods In The Mud project with Greater Yellowstone Coalition and ILCP is on National Geographic Newswatch. Acclaimed author Douglas H. Chadwick (author of The Wolverine Way)masterfully inserts context, common sense, science, texture, and grit into a grizzly bear discourse that’s so often clouded by mythology and ungrounded fear. The article is a must read and it’s right here: “How Many Grizzlies Are Enough?”

Absaroka Photo Essay

Presenting images from the third photo expedition for the Absaroka Tripods In The Mud project in November. It’s been a rewarding experience working with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and ILCP so far and I’m looking forward to the next phase – hopefully, we’ll launch a traveling photo exhibit to help us protect the A-B Front. The November trip was dramatically different, with short days, big wind, wintery conditions, and ungulates beginning to move from the high country. Hunting season for elk and deer was still going on, so sightings were limited. I enjoyed observing bighorn at the start of mating season – sheep that migrate from Yellowstone. And although bears are supposed to be hibernating by early November, tracks were everywhere, as grizzlies continued to feed on gut piles left by hunters. Thanks to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition for sponsoring this Tripods In The Mud project – it speaks volumes for their commitment to protection of the A-B Front. Thanks to ILCP for supporting the initative and amplifying the call for conserving “Yellowstone’s wild side”.

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Jim Mountain Spires : Prints Available

 Volcanic breccia spires at the base of Jim Mountain catch golden morning light in North Fork Canyon.
Continue reading “Absaroka Photo Essay”

Absaroka Reflections

I wrote this blog for the ILCP Tripods In The Mud site and thought I’d share it here too.

Juvenile Bighorn Sheep, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming

Reflecting on the Absaroka Tripods In The Mud Project

A blustery November wind sends a chill through North Fork Canyon, which is of no concern to mating bighorn sheep. I visited the sheep for several days in a row to give our Tripods In The Mud story a heartbeat, thinking occasionally about the future of bighorns and their rightful place as a Rocky Mountain icon. Mostly, I was just trying to make compelling images of a majestic creature that migrates from Yellowstone National Park to grassy winter range in North Fork Canyon. It’s natural to focus on the big rams with their full curl that wraps under the eye. That’s what I was doing when this juvenile approached me and looked straight into my lens, captivating me with his translucent eyes. The moment lasted for a burst of images, just a few seconds.

Bighorn sheep have been reduced to less than 10% of their historic population and are among the species that Greater Yellowstone Coalition advocates for. They are vulnerable to disease from domestic sheep; and because bighorns travel long distances, their range frequently overlaps. Bighorn sheep need freedom to roam between winter and summer range, a classic case for protecting critical lands outside of national parks. They are both emblematic of the Rocky Mountain Region and the struggle to protect both our natural and Western heritage. Continue reading “Absaroka Reflections”