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Call of the wild

Utahn spends 30 days `shooting' life in Yellowstone

From October 1996 to October 1997, I spent 30 days photo-graph-ing the wildlife in North America's premier national park and wildlife sanctuary: Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park.Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park has become a flash point for wildlife conservation and study.

From the mistakes of its first days when predatory species like wolves, coyotes and mountain lions were hunted, trapped and driven from the park, to the present day of wolf reintroductions, grizzly habitat management and man's attempts to rebalance the ecosystem, Yellowstone has become synonymous with America's Wild West. For better or worse, this is the place in America.

MY PHOTO TRIPS into the park are precious to me personally and valuable to me as a wildlife photographer. Unlike other branches of photography, to be a wildlife photographer is to be subject to the ramifications of public, as well as private, environmental policy. It requires me to know the policies of park administrators, preferences of local farmers and ranchers, and the whims of private organizations who own and control tracts of land in prime habitat areas.

After more than a dozen years of traversing Yellowstone on dozens of trips, this single year seemed to culminate in more photographic opportunities for me than at any other time. For me, October 1996 started in crescendo.

OCTOBER 1996

My wife, Cindy, and I arrived the last weekend of October, just a few days before park roads would be closed for the season. A thick blanket of snow covered the entire park, turning the amber fields of autumn grass into a frigid, arctic-looking landscape of snow. But there was life in the meadows and forests.

The elk migration had begun. Thousands of elk, broken into small groups and usually led by a bull, were pushing through hip-deep snow creating vast trails leading south. They were trekking towards the great elk wintering grounds near Jackson, Wyo.: the National Elk Refuge.

Migrating elk created highways in the snow, trampling down trails and providing easier transportation for those who followed. The old bulls seemed to be moving slowly, deliberately. With another rutting season behind them, many wouldn't survive the hardships of the coming winter.

I stopped to photograph one of the largest bulls I had ever seen in Yellowstone near Tower Junction. He moved slowly in the bitter cold, his massive antlers seemed to weigh him down, and it was only with the greatest effort that he could raise his head and nibble pine boughs and dig out tufts of grass. He was so listless that I was able to move fairly close to him, shooting with just a medium-size telephoto lens.

After a few minutes of browsing, he settled down under a pine, totally oblivious to my presence. Cindy and I moved on to photograph other migrating elk herds, coyotes hunting through the drifts of snow for mice and rarely seen great gray owls.

We came upon another large bull elk moving along Obsidian Creek. I used my snowshoes and followed him through deep drifts as he skirted the edge of the river. With the sun behind me, it made for fantastic images of the bull elk, the snow and the beautiful river.

J ANUARY 1997

I had met Mike Pellagatti, a wildlife cinematographer from Phoenix, on top of Mt. Everts in Yellowstone while we were both photographing a bachelor herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn rams. Since then we have taken field trips together throughout Arizona and Utah. In January 1997 Mike flew up to Salt Lake City, and we traveled north to Gardiner, Mont., near Yellowstone's northwest border, via Bozeman. This is the only road open to vehicular traffic in the park during the winter.

Temperatures in Lamar Valley dropped to 20 below zero the first morning we were in the field. Evidence of the reintroduced wolf packs was everywhere, from paw prints in the snow to pack sightings in the valley. The carcasses of elk and their attendant bone and hide piles were mute testimony to the hunting skill of these transplanted wolves. This was a fully stocked larder of prey animals the likes of which these wolves had never seen before.

What the wolves didn't eat fell down the predator chain to coyotes, then to eagles and ravens. We spent the days photographing coyote behavior near these elk kills. Their pack society is extremely structured, with each animal taking a turn at a kill before moving off to let the next coyote eat. Coyote scat revealed that even the toughest elk hide was consumable.

On an elk carcass near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, one pack of coyotes jockeyed for eating position, each waiting about a hundred yards away from the carcass for its turn. With head down, canines exposed and tail between its legs, the next coyote would charge in after a few minutes to claim its share of the meal. It was fascinating to watch and photograph firsthand.

The wolves were never too far away. We photographed both the Druid Peak and Crystal Creek packs as they worked their respective territories, opposite sides of the Lamar Valley. On one occasion five wolves of the Druid pack had surrounded a small herd of about 25 cow elk. Facing out from a tight circle, the elk wouldn't budge or break as the wolves sat on their haunches just yards away and howled at them. The resonating wolf howls carried to us as clear as if they were standing next to us.

What a shock it must have been for those elk when they came upon that first wolf, an enemy only their ancestors had seen but that their instincts told them was death. These were no coyotes to chase away for fun, these were born-and-bred elk killers. Finely tuned animals that lived at the top of the food chain, co-existing with the equally dominant grizzlies. It was amazing to watch how the coyotes kept their distance but still howled their dislike for the wolves.O

UR LAST DAY in the park found Mike and I again along the Lamar River. After the blistering cold days before, this was a pleasant, sunny day, maybe into the high teens. As we photographed a few bighorn rams that had come down to water from some nearby cliffs, we were surprised by what we saw.

Not more than 50 feet away, a family of three river otters suddenly appeared on the river ice. Like apparitions they disappeared before we could swing our cameras into action. Seconds later they reappeared on the other side of the river, farther downstream from us. The dark otters were nearly invisible in the dark waters of the Lamar River. It wasn't until they leaped out of the river onto the snow-packed river ice that you really were sure it was them.

For the next hour we worked these otters while they worked us. They played on the snow, sliding along the ice until they torpedoed into the water, catching cutthroat trout - then chasing each other and fighting over the fish. During that time they rarely stopped charging up and down a 300-yard-long, 15-foot-wide strip of unfrozen river, forcing us to grab our tripods and cameras and chase up and down the riverbank through deep snow and unstable footing.

Yet, for all the noise I made, they ignored me, finally flopping out onto the edge of the river ice to watch mom eat a huge cutthroat trout. Once they realized they couldn't cajole the trout from her, the siblings cleaned themselves and settled into a beautiful pose - sleeping nose-to-nose on their mother's back while she finished her trout. My camera's motordrive was burning through the film.

In those action-packed minutes, I had shot my last 12 rolls of film, bought four more from another photographer from Canada, then finished them. My last few frames that day were of these otters heading up the frozen Soda Butte Creek, chasing each other in that awkward running motion they have on land. Wow, it was an awesome experience.

JUNE 1997

June is a month of renewal in Yellowstone. Elk and bison calves are being born in forests and meadows that are saturated with the run-off of winter's snow. Hundreds of small waterfalls are twisting down the mountainsides creating dramatic scenes that demand to be photographed.

It didn't take me long to add hundreds of images to my files of calf elk and moose, bison and pronghorn antelope. Late spring finds all the young animals trying to survive and adapt to their new environments. The baby animals of spring are playful and energetic, learning to run and romp with the other young of the herds.

Many young animals won't survive their first encounters with predators. Grizzlies, wolves and coyotes take a large percentage of the young each successive generation. There are diseases and accidents, and some young will drown, as I witnessed on day in Hayden Valley.

A young calf elk only a few days old had become separated from its mother and had wandered out into a flood plain along the Yellowstone River. Standing in rushing water the calf was unable to move towards land because of a deep channel that crossed between it and the shore. It seemed unwilling to swim the short distance to safety. I moved off the bluff above the river to capture a few images as it wandered back and forth along a narrow island of shallow water.

With coyotes and grizzlies always present in Hayden Valley, this lone, stranded calf elk didn't seem to stand a chance if its mother didn't return for it. The calf continued to bleat and call for its mother until it grew too dark to watch it any longer. The next morning after carefully glassing the shorelines with my 20X Pentex binoculars, I spotted the remains of the calf, just a piece of hide and a few bones was all that was left. The tough lesson learned was that nature doesn't tolerate many mistakes.

This summer I searched hard for a coyote den or badger den. With the reintroduction of the wolves the coyote population is returning to a more natural balance. They aren't the top dog anymore. With their numbers decreasing it was difficult to find young coyotes or dens. However, I did run across a beautiful red fox.

At dawn just north of the Canyon intersection I stumbled upon a red fox crossing the road, into the thick stands of lodgepole pines on the east side. Shaun Walk and I parked my 4Runner and headed into the forest. The fox didn't seem particularly concerned with us. As he trotted off we trotted after him, maintaining a respectful distance without losing sight of him.

Finally he stopped to hunt in some light grass within the forest. To my amazement he had no trouble catching field voles. He would sit and listen, ears twitching as he tried to pick up the faint sounds of voles moving underground. When one was located, he sauntered over to the spot and simply dug the vole up, right out of the ground and ate him. In 20 minutes he dispatched three voles.

The forest was dark that morning, but eventually a shaft of light broke through the dense pines and spotlighted the fox. Shaun whistled, and the fox stopped digging and looked up at us. That was my image of the red fox, and he promptly ditched us within seconds of that image.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1997

Rutting season is a special time in Yellowstone. While the summer heat has driven most animals into the mountains and forests, the first storms of autumn and snow dusting the mountaintops returns them to the meadows.

Many species begin their rutting seasons within just a few weeks of each other. The first to rut are the moose, then the pronghorn antelope, followed by the elk, mule deer and finally, the bighorn sheep. There is no place in North America that puts on a wildlife show like Yellowstone does during the rutting season. It is truly a spectacular event.

Frosty mornings and golden stands of aspen give Yellowstone a fresh look. By far the most common park animal is the elk. And with the rut thousands of elk are visible in the park's meadows. These are dynamic, driven animals during the rut and are constantly moving. The big bulls jockey for position and try to capture the largest herds of cows they can control.

As a photographer, finding elk doing elk stuff is what I want to photograph. Elk rutting behavior is an amazing dance. The dominant harem bull not only has to defend his cows from other bulls, but he has to maintain control of the herd, discipline wandering females and mate with those who are ready. His vigilance is constant, and that is what makes him so photogenic.

Another friend, Jed Packer, and I got on a really nice six-point bull near Gibbon meadows. After charg-ing one of the nearby satellite bulls, this harem master pranced through the river, bugling, snorting and generally displaying rutting behavior. My 500mm lens kept me at a safe distance as he rounded up his scattered cows. The film just flies through the camera at times like that.

IT WAS AN exciting year of photography. In looking back through my stock library files I found I had photographed in one year: grizzly and black bears, river otters, weasels, coyotes, red fox, gray wolves, elk, mule deer, moose, bison, a single whitetail deer, bald and golden eagles, great gray owls, a northern pygmy owl, osprey, trumpeter swans, marmots, as well as various other ducks, geese and birds. What a great year to photograph Yellowstone, and now another is just starting.