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

To Yellowstone

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“Elk Antler Over Hellroaring Creek” Yellowstone National Park, WY

When the high mountains are still locked in winter’s icy grip, Yellowstone’s sagebrush hillsides, meadows, and ponderosa forests are buzzing with life. To move through Yellowstone is life-giving, so many powerful forces in motion in this dynamic landscape, new fawn, calf, owlet, cub; a time of renewal. We backpacked around the Hellroaring Creek drainage, then went to Bozeman, before finishing up with a week of (mostly video) photography. Yellowstone gives up her secrets in brief, astonishing moments. A wolf running full speed across the sage, grizzly sow with three cubs of the year, golden eagle gliding over the Lamar River, the SLAP of a beaver tail on Slough Creek. Some moments get photographed, most don’t, and that’s just fine. Time in Yellowstone is guaranteed to inspire. My photo essay follows Continue reading “To Yellowstone”

Camera Shy

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Camera Shy – a Greater Sage-grouse male displays on the wrong side of my camera. Sublette County, WY

A lighter side outtake from my Sage Spirit project: In 2010, I set up a DSLR camera with a Pocket Wizard remote trigger and wrapped the whole thing in sagebrush and camo on a lek (mating ground) south of Pinedale, Wyoming. The Sage-grouse were very active that morning and this particular male didn’t mind the camera, he was just on the wrong side. The idea here was to make a wide angle view of grouse on a lek, and although it didn’t work out…yet, there will be another try with a different setup next season. Greater Sage-grouse are a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act, with a listing decision scheduled for September 30, 2015. With all the misinformation and ill-informed media attempts to divide, it would be easy to overlook great collaborative work happening in the West – folks from all sides are coming together to conserve habitat for Greater Sage-grouse and the suite of species who rely on unbroken sagebrush landscapes to thrive. It’s a central part of our story. In partnership with Audubon Rockies, The Wilderness Society, and The Sierra Club, Sage Spirit, The American West At A Crossroads will be published by Braided River in July of this year.

Happy Birthday Yellowstone NP!

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Grizzly Bear Daydream, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yesterday was Yellowstone’s 143rd anniversary as a national park. Yellowstone remains the crown jewel of our national park system, a global symbol for both conservation and foresight. Yellowstone is one of the largest intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth – a fully functioning ecosystem. To me, it symbolizes our better selves and what’s possible when we act on our dreams. Happy Birthday Yellowstone!

Image For A New Year

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Greater Sage-grouse Spring Snow : Prints Available

A Greater Sage-grouse displays for nearby females on a lek (mating ground) south of Pinedale, Wyoming. Sage-grouse perform their elaborate display in spring to impress females for the right to mate. The imperiled birds live in sagebrush their entire life-cycle and are a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

As I looked back on 2014, I kept returning to this one image. Of thousands of photographs made last year, there is prescience in this one photo, this single male Greater Sage-grouse. In January, Sage-grouse tuck under sagebrush for protection from winter storms and eat the grey-green leaves to sustain them through a harsh winter. And in just over two months, they will return to mating grounds, called leks to perform their spectacular mating ritual. Males with spiky tail feathers fanned and chests puffed up, seem to double in size while displaying for females, making popping sounds over and over from their bright yellow air sacs. Just a few dominant males will do the actual mating, and the spectacle will last into May. I’ve documented the cycle here before, how Sage-grouse spend their entire lives in sagebrush, and why protecting sagebrush habitat on a landscape scale is critical to the health and sustainability of natural systems in the American West. In spite of the toxic Washington political atmosphere, bureaucrats monkey wrenching the Endangered Species Act, and widespread cynicism; I remain optimistic. There is real momentum towards collaborative change in how these lands and wildlife are viewed and managed in the West and there is no turning back. When Sage-grouse return to their leks in spring, as they have for 25 million years, sandhill cranes, mule deer, pronghorn, migratory songbirds, and hundreds of others species will also be stirring and migrating. I’m mindful that humans aren’t separate from these natural processes, that ecosystem health is our life support and wild inspiration nourishes the human spirit. Each time I return to this image of a single Greater Sage-grouse, I return to that tranquil moment in a cold nylon hunting blind and smile because this bird embodies hope, inspiration, resilience, and what is right in the West.
Happy New Year.

Greater Sage Grouse Up

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Greater Sage Grouse on Lek : Prints Available

 A male Greater sage grouse displays for a female during lekking, or mating season. Sage grouse carry on the elaborate mating ritual from around late March to early May, often in foul weather. Considered an umbrella, or keystone species for the health of the sagebrush ecosystem, the Greater sage grouse is "warranted, but precluded" from ESA protection.
Centrocercus urophasianus

A September 29, 2014 report by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department says Greater Sage-grouse populations have increased by 10% in 2014 compared to 2013 lek counts. Great, but what does it mean? The report explains recent wet spring conditions: Game and Fish Sage Grouse Coordinator Tom Christiansen said the increased numbers of birds are largely due to the good moisture conditions.
“Green equals grouse,” he said. “We have found when we get good moisture in the spring, but not cold wet weather during the peak nesting period, the birds will have better nesting success.”
The report goes on to describe the cyclical nature of Sage-grouse populations that rise and drop with favorable and harsh conditions. We can be hopeful about the recent trend, great science, and remarkable work on behalf of a species here in the West; but it’s important to recognize that turning around a century-long decline will take time. Sage grouse are still on the brink.

Pronghorn Chase

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Pronghorn buck chasing doe, Grand Teton National Park, WY

In the last warm light of the day, and while grazing with three does, this particular doe wandered a bit far and a chase ensued. I’ve seen it many times before, usually a straight line across the sage well into the distance. This time was different – she broke with the buck in pursuit, then led him in three or four fairly tight circles at high speed – pronghorn are North America’s fastest land mammal. During the autumn rut, the buck has to keep his harem together. The chase is serious business. These Teton pronghorn migrate on the Path Of The Pronghorn at the end of rut, a 120-160 mile journey through the Gros Ventre Mountains into the Green River Basin. Some travel as far as the Red Desert in one of North America’s longest land mammal migrations. May they continue to have freedom to roam.

Sage-grouse Season

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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.

Junction Butte Alphas

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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.

Night Witness

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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.

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