Since, in the past, I have steadfastly and openly refused to bait owls for photographic purposes, (see Of Mice and Owls), I’m feeling a little guilty about this.
Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t feel guilty at all, since:
I didn’t know the owl was there.
I wasn’t carrying a camera at the time.
The “bait” was a stainless steel hex nut.
So here’s the story, winnowed down to the barest details, since it’s really not that interesting.
I was trying to fix a fishing reel that hasn’t worked quite right in about two years.
After I generally made things worse by attempting a repair which involved many tiny parts and lots of profanity, I figured I should test the reel.
I put new fishing line on the reel, strung the line through the guides on the rod, and tied a stainless steel hex nut to the line so I could test my surgical skills. The nut was handy and weighed about 1/4 ounce, near as I could figure – just the right weight to simulate a small fishing lure.
I heaved the nut down the driveway and it bounced in the sand. I began retrieving the surrogate lure and all was well. Damn reel worked like a champ.
Then a barred owl pounced on the nut and wouldn’t let go. I swear this is true.
I had no idea their was an owl nearby, although to be fair I should have; they’re here every year.
Anyway, she hung on, but thankfully didn’t try to fly away with the nut. That would have gotten sporty real quick. Instead she just sat there holding on until I scolded her like you would a naughty puppy. “No, no, no…”
The owl eventually let go and flew up to a perch about 20 feet away, and she stayed there long enough for me to grab my camera.
That’s her in the photo, still trying to figure out what the hell that was all about.
Posting my personal favorites from the past twelve months is a new tradition I look forward to at the end of each year.
For one thing, it reminds me of all the fascinating places I’ve been and wonderful wild things I’ve seen in the past twelve months. For another, it gives me a chance to share some backstories, and to explain why certain images are special to me.
I’ve cut back the selection this year to thirteen images. But if you do want to see further highlights from the year, including additional foxes, wolves, grizzlies, owls, albino deer, (and even a couple of landscapes!) please check out the full “Best of 2015” gallery by clickinghere.I’m proud of all 48 images in that gallery, so please take a look.
And, of course, I would truly appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and families.
Among those of us who spend our lives looking for wildlife to photograph, there is something called a “Three Dog Day” – that means finding, and with any luck photographing, red foxes, coyotes, and wolves all in the same day.
In a place like Yellowstone National Park, where the animals are more accustomed to people, three dog days are noteworthy, but not that unusual.
What is unusual is having that same experience in Wisconsin.
Much of the northwest part of the state is heavily forested; most of the rest is rolling scrub oak and pine barrens. In both terrain types you’re lucky if you can see 50 yards. And predators are much more skittish.
But one day last week the wildlife gods looked down on me and smiled.
It began with a lovely male Red fox prowling around the house early in the morning. He was undoubtedly searching for one of the many deer mice perpetually trying to find a way in.
Personally, I have nothing against the mice, but I hope the fox succeeded anyway.
After a few minutes of watching, I left the fox to his business while I poked around to see what else I might see on that cool August morning.
The local badgers have been busy lately and I thought I might find a family group to photograph.
That’s when the unusual happened.
Gray wolves are ever-present here in this part of the state, but they are rarely seen for more than a moment.
Rarely seen does not equate to rare, though. There are lots of wolves around here.
In fact, I’ve caught glimpses of five wolves in the past month; long enough to ID them, but far too brief to photograph them.
But for some reason, on this day a pair from a local pack decided to do a territorial perimeter check in broad daylight.
I watched them for about a mile. Each time they would come out to the road, urinate on everything in sight, and then melt back into the roadside cover. With one eye on me, and the other on the road, they performed this scent marking six times while I watched.
In August, Wisconsin wolves are not at their prettiest; with thin coats, thin bodies, and gangly legs like only the wolf has.
But still, wild wolves are fascinating, and they’re really hard to photograph in the middle of a Wisconsin summer. It’s much easier to find them in the winter.
Based on their urination techniques, one was male and the other female, and the male was a head taller. As tall as he was, and in his summer coat, he almost looked like he was on stilts.
Eventually they left the road altogether and I went on my way.
That wonderful, unexpected photo op sent me on a mission to complete a wild dog trifecta.
A gray fox den about thirty miles away has been relatively inactive since the vixen started letting her three kits tag along on her hunts, but I had to check it anyway.
But another adult Gray fox has been seen recently in the same area, so I staked out the most likely place to see it.
15 minutes later the gray came up out of a ditch and stood looking at me.
Unbelievable! A three dog day in Wisconsin – in August.
Of course I immediately started making plans to accomplish the impossible; a four dog day.
All I needed was a coyote, the most common of all the wild canids in the state. But try as I might, I never found one.
Not a bad day, though, considering I started out looking for badgers.
Keith R. Crowley is a writer and photographer who splits his time between the Upper Midwest, the Central Plains, and the Rocky Mountain West.
Last week’s post about the death of Yellowstone hiker Lance Crosby and the subsequent death of the grizzly bear responsible sparked a lot of commentary here on this page and elsewhere on social media sites. Some comments were supportive, some highly critical.
The majority wrote that last week’s story helped them understand the complexities of the issues surrounding the incident. Since that was my intent, I was pleased to get the support.
Personally speaking, the most rewarding comments came from Mr. Crosby’s friends and co-workers.
I didn’t know Lance Crosby, but I now have a much greater understanding of the man through his colleagues. I will share one private email, with permission, because it reminds all of us that we are dealing with real people here as well as bears:
Sir, I wanted to thank you for your exceptional article. Lance was a good friend of mine having worked at Lake Clinic with him for two seasons. The social media comments on his death have both angered and disgusted me. I too knew Blaze having passed her and her cubs many mornings when out for a run. (usually in the horse pasture just below the government housing) I also have hiked much of the back country alone and even now can close my eyes and follow the Elephant Back trail up to the lookout point. What I wanted you to know that I have struggled this past week to make any sense of Lance’s death. I am surrounded by suicide bombings almost daily here in Afghanistan and the thought of losing Lance in such a peaceful and beautiful setting was hard to wrap my head around. Your article has helped me come to terms with his death.. Thank you Tim Langley Kabul, Afghanistan.
That message, and many others like it, made the initial post worthwhile.
But there were sincere objections too, and they deserve a response.
The most common criticism referenced my statement that Yellowstone was created “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” I obviously didn’t explain what that means to me very well.
While I didn’t invent that line, (the 42nd U.S. Congress did,) I think it’s a damn good thing they wrote it.
I’m very certain that without those words the Yellowstone landscape would currently be covered in condos, ski resorts, fast-food joints, and ATV trails. And there wouldn’t be grizzly bears there at all. That measured and thoughtful congressional language withstood many assaults from profiteers and developers in the park’s early days.
We can revise our opinions and beliefs, and we can amend laws, but we cannot edit historical documents because we don’t like the words in them. The actcreating Yellowstone National Park indisputably says what it says.*
On a similar note, some critiques revolved around my statement that humans created Yellowstone. They said adamantly that humanity had nothing to do with creating Yellowstone, nature did. They are both right and wrong.
Obviously, we had nothing to do with creating the Yellowstone landscape. But the definition of the park is all our doing. As stated above, without that legal description, you don’t have anything to visit, to marvel at, to fight for, and to cherish.
Yellowstone “The National Park” is 100% man-made. And I, for one, am very thankful for the foresight of the people who created Yellowstone and for the language they used in setting it aside.
The one thing that protects Yellowstone is that it’s a public place. If you prefer, the inscription could just as well read “For the benefit and enjoyment of the public.”
To the many commentators here who suggested, or even insisted, that we “stay the hell out” of Yellowstone because it belongs to the animals, not the public, you are insisting on something very dangerous; much more dangerous than traveling alone in the wilderness.
Some even said “tear down the damn sign.”
To those people I say: Are you really asking for people to stay out of our National Parks? Stay out of those places some have called “Americas best idea” – that’s truly what you want?
Imagine being prohibited from visiting the Grand Canyon because condors live there; or Brooks Falls because of the bears there. . . the Everglades, Mount Rainier, the Smoky Mountains, Yosemite Valley, the Cascades, Crater Lake, the Badlands, the Tetons, Glacier Bay, – the list is 59 parks and hundreds of rare species long.
That’s what you “stay the hell out” and “tear down the signs” folks are advocating, whether you admit it or not.
In each of those parks, wild animals thrive specifically because the parks are wild places. But they are wild publicplaces.
If we exclude humanity to preserve the animals, if we turn all those national parks into more national wildlife refuges, (which we are fortunate to already have hundreds of), where human activity is strictly controlled and in many cases even prohibited, then those places will become the domain of animals and researchers alone. “Good!” you might say. But be careful what you wish for.
Excluding people to protect the animals from human contact means you won’t ever have the chance to see a wild grizzly bear. You won’t even get to see pretty pictures of them on Facebook and Instagram because my colleagues and I won’t be allowed in either. In fact, you won’t know if the animals still exist there at all unless you read about it in a government report or see them on television.
I know there are people who really do want this total public exclusion, but happily the vast majority still want to see these things for themselves. They want to experience first hand the perpetual sense of awe that those parks promise. I’m one of those people.
As soon as the public cannot visit the parks, those places and the creatures there will cease to have significance to the masses. And it will become much more difficult to advocate for any of them.
The National Parks are the greatest public relations device ever created for Mother Nature.
Related to the “stay out” proponents are the many comments stating that Lance Crosby shouldn’t have been where he was at all because the animals were there first. The kinder versions of those comments usually went something like “We’re in their home. If we get killed it’s our own fault.”
While I agree completely that we take our chances when we enter the bear’s realm, I couldn’t disagree more that we don’t belong there in the first place.
I addressed the mistakes I personally believe Mr. Crosby made in the original post.** But I disagree wholeheartedly with those commentators who suggest that people should not be allowed to experience the parks alone and away from the crowds.
Despite what some of the modern pundits are writing about this particular situation, I believe that early naturalists like Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, and Sigurd Olson, understood things that the “stay out” crowd are ignoring now. Those philosophers each spent large chunks of their lives alone in nature, and we have all profited spiritually and tangibly because of it.
Permanently separating humans from nature doesn’t work, especially if you want to inspire people to care. Wilderness can’t be an abstract idea, it needs to be experienced.
A huge part of the problem right now in all our national parks is balancing public access with resource protection. Logistics and infrastructure management are not my areas of experience – I’m just a dopey wildlife photographer who spends a lot of time in Yellowstone – but from where I stand it looks like a holy nightmare.
What I do know is that the solution is not to “tear down the signs” and “stay the hell out.”
I suspect that the best course now is to focus on education of park visitors and employees to the point that they can prove they understand where they are, what the benefits of wilderness are, what they’re likely to see, and what things might hurt them.
Anyone who doesn’t demonstrably understand that bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, bison, elk, moose, sheep, even pikas, can hurt you, cannot be allowed into the park.
A signed waiver stating they understand those potential dangers and the many other things besides animals that can kill you, would also help prevent the unnecessary lawsuits the Park Service regularly faces in these kind of situations.
Arming everyone who enters Yellowstone with bear spray, but without instruction about where, when, and how to use it is a recipe for disaster. Arming them with the knowledge to prevent situations where they need that spray at all is a much better alternative.
You can make bear spray mandatory for travel away from the roads, on and off established trails, but we have to ensure people will use it responsibly and not start spraying critters they come across just because they feel uncomfortable. That does also happen in Yellowstone.
As some of you know, Yellowstone has different types of Park Rangers: Law enforcement, back country, interpretive, there are probably others…
The addition of many more rangers, especially interpretive (educational) rangers, would help. If those rangers were heavily concentrated into areas with known hazards, some potential tragedies would certainly be avoided.
Again, I realize that will be a logistical and financial nightmare for the National Park Service, but something must been done – something short of further limiting visitor access to the parks. There are already massive areas of Yellowstone which have seasonal and long-term closures for resource management.
I would prefer to see the park flooded with additional rangers rather than covered in new “Danger: Keep Out” signs.
And you should know, the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone region is increasing. Since human visitation isn’t likely to decline, the potential for another bear attack like the one that killed Lance Crosby is there, and always will be.
More 1/4 billion people visited America’s national parks last year; 3.5 million in Yellowstone alone.
If they stop coming because they can’t go anywhere alone when they get there; if they have stay on air-conditioned tour buses; if they can only see the parks from paved roads and in the pages of magazines; the inspiration, the solitude, the solace, and the healing the parks provide to regular people on a daily basis will be gone forever.
Actually, I think those days are coming, and I don’t want to hurry them along.
I could write, much, much more on this, but I’m tired of my own words, and I know many of you are too.
I’ll end by saying that the comments I received here about grizzlies, and people, and national parks were very enlightening to me. The vast majority were obviously heartfelt, and I thank everyone who commented respectfully and thoughtfully – even those who were critical of my positions. Civility is becoming a lost art.
* Someone took me to task that I didn’t publish the whole 1872 act. It’s all there at the link for you to interpret as you will. You just have to click “next image” when you’re finished with the first page.
** The primary mistake being that he doesn’t appear to have been carrying bear spray. But frankly, we don’t know that. He could have had spray that he subsequently lost in the struggle for his life. Several of his friends and colleagues wrote to say the he was very bear-aware and always had the spray with him on his hikes.
Keith R. Crowley is a writer and photographer who spends much of his time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Trying to make sense of last week’s fatal Grizzly bear attack on a hiker in Yellowstone National Park and its aftermath is a fool’s errand. But this fool is going to try anyway.
This kind of story wrenches its way deep into the psyche of all who spend time in the wilds. And it certainly wrenched its way deep into my soul since I spend months each year in Yellowstone and the surrounding Grizzly Country.
To make it even more personal, I, like many of my colleagues, came to “know” the bear believed to be involved in the attack.
I put “know” in quotes because it’s a fallacy to think we can really know a wild animal. There is simply no way to get inside their heads. Hell, most of us don’t even understand our own pets’ behavior very well, so we can forget about predicting a wild grizzly’s intent or motivation.
In the case of this particular bear, she was a 20 year old sow many of us call “Blaze.” In her two decades she had never been known to be aggressive toward people. In fact, she was remarkably tolerant given some of the situations she found herself in. She lived out her life in areas of high visibility in the park and therefore drew crowds for years on end. She raised many cubs, and she never got into serious trouble.
But then, for reasons unknown, she killed Lance Crosby and consumed part of him. She cached his body (buried it under debris to protect it from other predators) for later feedings, and she stayed in the immediate area. And she did this with her cubs present.
It is a worst-case scenario in the world of wildlife management. There can be no winners here.
Many “experts” immediately came out of the woodwork to explain that grizzlies don’t see humans as food; that this attack was purely a defensive, instinctual reaction by a sow grizzly protecting her cubs.
True, most bear attacks are defensive, and when the bear determines that the threat is gone they leave the area. But that’s not what happened to Crosby. This particular bear most certainly saw him as food.
Personally, I can’t imagine wild grizzly bears differentiating much between different types of prey. Elk, bison, deer, humans – all are potential meals. Because of generations of persecution, bears are naturally more fearful of humans, but like any apex predator they’ll eat whatever they can catch.
Whether this change from defender to predator happened during the initial attack on Crosby, or immediately afterward is irrelevant. It ended with the bear consuming a person. That’s the line in the sand which cannot be crossed. Humanity has a long policy of destroying man-eaters – justly or not.
In a place like Yellowstone, even habituated animals that have not actually attacked anyone are sometimes put down. The mantra there is “a fed bear is a dead bear.” This bear had no chance from the moment she fed on the body.
The particulars of this recent attack will always be shrouded in mystery because there were no witnesses. So the National Park Service investigators treat the area where the body was found as a crime scene. A lot of forensic evidence was, is, and will be gathered by investigators. A very detailed report about the evidence will eventually be generated.
The documentation regarding the park’s last grizzly-caused deaths, in 2011, is amazingly detailed. The rangers and scientists who investigated that scene, (many of the same people are working on this one, ) generated reams of data about the attack, and the final report on John Wallace’s death is lengthy.
There appear to be some similarities with the current fatality, although until a report like the one linked above is released, we can only speculate.
Speculation is, of course, often wrong and rarely helpful.
There are “experts” who speculate that just because the bear cached the body doesn’t mean that it now views people as a food source. But that is specious reasoning at it’s worst.
What the caching here definitively proves is that this particular bear viewed at least one human as a food source. And that means the bear must be removed.
Did the bear deserve to die? Of course not. This grizzly was only doing what bears do. There is no justice in removing the bear, and her cubs, and destroying any of them.
And the wildlife managers who must do the deed will gain no joy from the experience.
It’s insulting and contemptible to suggest that people who have devoted their professional lives to wildlife have anything but the deepest respect for animals. The very last thing they want to do is kill the creatures they are trying to preserve.
That dedication to the science of wildlife does, however, mean that they must sometimes make tough choices. And those tough choices are difficult to explain the public. But if the professionals don’t make the hard decisions, the potential downside is too great.
We know about that downside because when John Wallace was killed by a Yellowstone grizzly in August of 2011, the bear deemed responsible had been involved in another fatality two months earlier.
At that time, the Yellowstone Bear Management lead, Kerry Gunther, didn’t believe the situation warranted euthanizing the bear known as the “Wapiti sow.” His team let her go on her way because he had good evidence at the site of Brian Matayoshi’s death that this was a defensive attack. He also had an eyewitness. Matayoshi’s wife, Marylyn, was attacked in the same incident and she watched her husband die a few yards away.
8 weeks later came the Wallace attack. While there was no direct evidence that the Wapiti sow killed Wallace, DNA evidence indicated that she did feed on his body. How would you like that hanging over your head?
Those 2011 incidents certainly weighed heavily on Gunther and all the management people involved in the recent situation. The potential backlash (read: lawsuits for wrongful death) was simply too great if they decided to let this bear live and something happened again.
So, for the second time in a few weeks, I find myself in a position I don’t care for – attempting to be a voice of reason in a grave wildlife matter. Frankly, I don’t like it. And I know it will make me some enemies.
Like anyone else, I would prefer to rant, rave, cry, throw my hands in the air, point fingers, complain, and scream. But those things aren’t helpful at all. In fact, they’re counter-productive.
While many will blame Gunther, Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, and their colleagues for the death of the grizzly, some are content to place the blame on Mr. Crosby, a contract park employee and regular hiker who “should’ve known better.”
I’ve heard him called an “idiot”, “stupid”, “an asshole”, and several people have said he “deserved to be killed” by the bear because he invaded her home. It’s disturbing how callous some people can be.
Many have said that Crosby shouldn’t have been off trail, and that he broke all the rules about living in bear country.
On the first point, I will say that despite everything you hear out there on social media, Yellowstone National Park was NOT created so bears would have a place to live unaffected by humans. The purpose and intent of the park’s creators couldn’t possibly be any more clearly spelled out in the 1872 act which created it – and it is literally carved in stone on the Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance. The park was created “FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE”.
Some want to see the park from the roads, and from inside their vehicles; some like to hike on well-worn paths; some ride horses into the backcountry; some will choose to go off-trail on foot. I, and many, many others, enjoy all of the above.
There is no right way to experience Yellowstone. Just because someone chooses to go off-trail doesn’t make them a villain.
That Yellowstone has become a de facto wildlife refuge is a great joy to me and millions of others. Many of us go there specifically because there are bears, and wolves, and moose, and bison living on the incredible landscape. But, everyone who goes there should do so with the full knowledge that these things, and many others, can kill us.
They should all know that the animals, the terrain, the weather, the thermals, and especially the traffic there, are all potentially dangerous. We just need to be aware.
That is the one place where the park has failed miserably. Far, far too many people view Yellowstone as the world’s largest drive-through zoo.
This brings me to the second point about Lance Crosby’s death: Yes, it appears he did ignore some rules.
First, he was alone when he was attacked. With or without bears, travelling alone in wild places is riskier than travelling in groups. But I understand the appeal of getting off the trail, and the solitude gained by doing so. There is great value in experiencing wilderness on your own.
Furthermore, being off trail isn’t necessarily more dangerous than being “on-trail.” All of Yellowstone is Bear Country, not just the off-trail areas.
Last May, many fellow wildlife photographers and I watched another park employee have a close call with Blaze and her cubs. The employee was simply out for a run along the shore of Yellowstone Lake near the Lake Hotel.
He ran down the lakeshore, turned inland on a trail and ran to within 50 or 60 yards of Blaze and her then tiny cubs, all hidden in the chest high sage brush.
When the runner realized that there was a large group of photographers a couple hundred yards off and looking his way, he knew something was up. He wisely slowed to a walk and backed out of the area.
Blaze undoubtedly knew he was there, and she did nothing. Wild animals are unpredictable.
I approached the runner minutes later and asked if he knew there was a Grizzly sow with cubs in the area. He didn’t. Until he saw us, he had no idea how close he was to potential disaster. He couldn’t have. Had he not seen us, he told me, he would have continued his run right into her and the cubs.
That situation could have easily become another Yellowstone bear attack, and if it had, I doubt anyone present would have blamed the runner. Lots of park employees and park visitors run, jog, and stroll through that area each and every day. It’s a well-established route that doesn’t look like “Bear Country”, and I have yet to see anyone carrying bear spray there.
Had Blaze attacked this young man, it would have just been a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The internet would have blown up with accusations and insults, but those of us who spend much time there know how easily things can go wrong for no particular reason.
So, why is everyone so quick to blame Mr. Crosby?
Because this whole thing sucks and people need someone to blame, justly or not.
Mr. Crosby chose to be alone in Yellowstone and it cost him his life. It cost a grizzly its life, and may cost the cubs their lives, too. There is no justice to be had here.
Many bad things can happen when you’re alone, but so can many really good ones. Simply being alone in the park cannot be allowed to become a crime.
And the next mistake? We will never know if Crosby was making noise to alert unseen bears of his presence, but it doesn’t appear that he was carrying bear spray when he was attacked. It may have saved him and the bears, but maybe not.
Personally, I always carry it when I’m out of my vehicle, but I know that bear spray is not a guaranteed solution to a Grizzly attack.
In 2013, two off-duty park employees on a hike ran into another sow grizzly with cubs. Both used bear spray, and both were still injured by the bear. I’d rather have the spray than not have it, but I don’t fool myself that it’s totally effective either.
And to be honest, lots of people who do carry the spray wouldn’t be able to use it effectively in a crisis situation anyway. An instructional videois helpful, but it’s no training for a real bear attack.
Going off trail alone is not a mistake, it’s a choice. And it’s not against the rules – for now. It may be more inherently dangerous than staying with a group in a busy area, but again, some go to Yellowstone to get away from other people.
Frankly, you, me, Crosby, Wallace, the Matayoshis; indeed everyone who enters Yellowstone, could do absolutely everything right and still be attacked by a Grizzly. Just as there is no point in blaming the bears, there is no point blaming the victims. If you really need to blame someone, blame lawyers – they’re used to it.
In the end, a Yellowstone grizzly sow with young cubs – a bear many of us looked forward to seeing and wondering at each year- killed, ate and cached a human being. And she stayed to feed on the body again. Sadly, there was no choice to be made.
Rest well, Mr. Crosby. Rest well, Blaze.
Note: You can read the author’s follow-up article to this story by clicking HERE.
Keith Crowley is a writer, photographer, and frequent visitor into wild areas in the American West. He can be reached through his web site: http://www.lodgetrail.com
Copyright 2015 – Keith R Crowley – All Rights Reserved
We just returned from making a movie, and this time I was in front of the camera.
Annette and I were cast as extras for a documentary film being made by the National Park Service about pioneer emigration on the Oregon Trail.
As a major history geek, especially U.S. western history, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this. My blushing bride came along because she tolerates my eccentricities, and sometimes even encourages them.
Personal interest in this stuff runs deep. My night stand and bookshelves are covered with histories of the West. Obscure past events almost no one else cares about thrill me.
And then someone tells me I can pretend to be a pioneer? And have it filmed? Where do I sign?
I mean really, how often do you get to have professional wardrobe and make-up people fuss over you to make sure you look just right for the cameras? For you super-models I’m sure it’s no big deal, but it was unprecedented for me.
Anyway, because I’m usually behind the camera, and because most of my models have fur or feathers, the whole process was fascinating.
The make-up people coated my hair with simulated grease, smeared artificial dirt on my face, trimmed my real beard, and generally made me look dirty, old, and weary, (in other words, they really didn’t do much.)
As for wardrobe, I was one of the lucky few who got to wear a long wool frock coat, along with the worsted wool pants, vest, hat, neckerchief, and heavy cotton shirt. Did I mention it was hot?
But all that just added to the authentic misery. The real Oregon Trail was not for the faint of heart.
The filming was done at various locations on the combined Oregon/California/Mormon Trail near Alcova, Wyoming; in the ruts and the dust, and over the bones of some of our adventurous – and desperate – ancestors who came west in the mid-1800s.
With Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate as the backdrop, we went with the period-correct wagons, drawn by oxen and mules through the prairie grass and the prairie heat of August in central Wyoming.
The only real concern was having enough drinking water on hand… and not stepping in fresh ox shit. (Two things the real pioneers contended with, too.)
All in all, this on-location, living history stuff felt pretty real.
When the director called “action”, the Wagon Master actually yelled “Wagon’s ho!!!” to get the train moving. And there wasn’t a hint of theater in his voice. He meant it.
In fact, the only people there who didn’t appear to be having a grand time were the teamsters and wranglers. They were busy trying to make sure no one got hurt around the livestock and wagons.
Since I was part of the cast, I only got to pick up my camera a few times between takes. Nevertheless, I had a grand time playing Pioneer in the Old West and now I can cross “act in a historical movie” off my bucket list.
The film will eventually be used in various places by the Park Service, but the big screen (and I’m told, interactive) version will eventually be shown in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.
Let me get this out of the way right up front, as a hunter I find the practice of shooting habituated animals just outside of national parks – parks anywhere in the world – reprehensible. It’s not hunting, period. To call it “hunting” is to defile the word.
If the Minnesota dentist who recently shot the famous lion just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe had any knowledge about the conditions of the “hunt”, if he knew, or even suspected, that laws were being broken in the taking of the animal, then he should face the full penalty of the law.
But, death threats from pseudo-celebrities? What the hell has happened to this world? Wait, don’t answer. I think I know this one.
There were two things I was certain of the moment I first heard this story:
1- The media reports of the lion’s death will be as sensational and hyperbolic as possible.
2- Reactionaries will descend out of the ether calling for the death of the dentist.
Check and check.
On the first point, snap judgments and spasmodic reactions are the social norm now, and the mainstream media is more than happy to feed the beast. I just read in one account that the lion was “skinned alive.” Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think so.
Nothing turns on a content manager more than a story about a human doing something despicable, and this story has it all — A mean, rich, old American dude enjoys torturing animals in exotic locations for his personal satisfaction. He spends ungodly sums of money pursuing his sadistic passions, and he gloats about it publicly. Dentist as Satan.
Since he is obviously The Devil, we are free to cast as many stones as we like. We can even suggest that he suffers from microphallus, because, well, it’s funny.
But wait. We don’t yet know if the dentist did anything against the law. You can debate the morality of lion hunting all you like, but in Zimbabwe it is legal.
As I said at the outset, I don’t think shooting habituated animals near a park or sanctuary is hunting in any way, shape or form, but we don’t have all the facts yet in this case.
Rationality suggests that we wait for the authorities to determine which, if any, laws were broken by the dentist and his guides before we begin the sentencing phase in this kangaroo court.
Never mind that.
Reason and the internet are mortal enemies. Let the death threats commence.
Even deep thinkers like Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne have publicly condemned the dentist to death.
Morgan, who regularly disproves the theory that a British accent makes everyone sound smarter, even suggests he would like to hunt down the dentist and kill him personally. “Then we’d calmly walk over, skin him alive, cut his head from his neck…”
Isn’t this the same Piers Morgan who outspokenly and continuously condemns the proliferation of violence in America? With his many faces, you’d think he could find a better one to show us.
Now, if it turns out the dentist knew what he was doing, then I hope they take him back to Zimbabwe and he gets to experience the local prison system for a very long time.
Until then, what’s that ubiquitous and infernal meme again?
It started with a plan to photograph a rare and little-known native animal on a western prairie…it ended as a month full of foxes and fox pups of three different species.
The original plan, hatched several years ago while camping on an open grassland, focused on the enigmatic and amazing Swift fox.
Swift foxes (Vulpes velox) were the most common canid on the prairie before the settlement of the West began. Meriwether Lewis encountered them on multiple occasions in 1805 and called them “The most beautiful fox that I ever beheld” in his famous journal.
By the turn of the 20th Century, as their prey base and habitat were systematically lost due to human development, Swift foxes were extirpated from most of their former range. They were once critically endangered, but there are now pockets of Swifts scattered across the west.
In the Spring of 2010, I had seen what I thought was a Swift running across the prairie, but I just couldn’t be certain. I regularly ran into their close cousins, the Red fox, during my trips into the grasslands, and from a distance it’s not easy to tell them apart. If they are standing still the differences are more apparent, but “Swift” foxes do live up to their name. They can run 40mph if they want to. They often want to.
While I couldn’t be certain that it was a Swift fox I saw darting through the grass, that potential 2010 sighting inspired me.
Swifts were just returning to these western grasslands, and they were experiencing the ups and downs that many reintroduced native species go through. The uncertainty of their continuing presence on the prairies had me making plans to devote some extended time looking for them.
But other things intervened, and June, 2015 was my first opportunity to give proper attention this long-anticipated personal project.
What I didn’t know back when I made my Swift plans, was that the month of June would coincidentally begin with a precious chance to photograph a Red fox den. Never one to pass on opportunities like this, I dropped everything (which at the time was photographing loon chicks) and devoted every waking hour to the foxes.
The Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were living under an outbuilding in a small town in northern Wisconsin. No one had seen the male since the pups were born, but the vixen, with distinctive white splotches on her rear legs and feet, was a regular sight around town. And she was obviously having no trouble raising the three rambunctious pups.
Fox pups (or kits, if you prefer,) regardless of the species, are balls of perpetual motion when they’re awake. When they sleep, nothing short of a nuclear explosion can stir them.
For more than a week I watched the pups grow and become increasingly more self-confident. By my last day with them, one of the pups, bolder than the others, approached within a few feet of me. I’m sure it was wondering what that incessant clicking sound was coming from my cameras.
But I had a long-planned date with Swift foxes and so I had to abandon the little Red fox family.
My arrival back on the high plains was no disappointment. Courtesy of a very knowledgeable local expert, I knew of a few places where I was likely to see Swifts, and with enough patience and some experimentation in blinds and camouflage, I might just get a good look at an animal few people know.
The plan worked. By the third day I had seen fascinating behavior at three different dens and taken some wonderful Swift fox images.
All of the dens I visited had adults and pups, with one den having six busy little pups tearing around the prairie. Watching them mob their mother whenever she would return to the den was a joy to behold.
A week later I returned to Wisconsin with hundreds of photos of the oddly cat-like Swift foxes, along with some satisfying images of many other grassland species.
Then, perhaps most amazingly, when I returned to northern Wisconsin I stumbled on an unprecedented opportunity to photograph a Gray fox den.
Of the three species, the Grays were the most unexpected, and maybe the most rewarding.
Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are very shy, nervous critters, and although I’ve seen many, I’ve had nothing but bad luck trying to get even one good photo.
Grays have been displaced in much of their range by Red foxes, which are more tolerant of human activity.
Grays prefer big woods, and they are the only species of canine in North America that can climb trees. They are so good at climbing that they sometimes den in trees.
In twenty-five years of searching, I had never found a Gray fox den before. Now I had one within easy striking distance of home.
As with the Red foxes early in the month, and Swifts too, I spent many, many hours waiting on these Grays, and also like the Reds and Swifts, these lovely animals rewarded me with an embarrassment of photographic riches.
For me, June, 2015 will always be The Three Fox Moon.
Twice in the last couple weeks tourists have been severely injured by American buffalo (or more correctly, American bison) in Yellowstone National Park. In both instances the injuries occurred because the tourists ignored multiple park warnings and approached far too closely to the animals.
As someone who spends a lot of time in Yellowstone and other places where large wild mammals live, I can comment on this from personal experience.
First, I will say that when I’m in places like Yellowstone I spend most of my time searching for apex predators; that means Grizzly bears, wolves, cats, and the like. And it’s extremely rare that I feel threatened or in danger around these animals, even when I’m in relatively close proximity to them.
Predators obviously require a high level of respect and awareness, but usually they just go about their business while I go about mine. That’s the idea anyway if you’re a wildlife photographer.
The animals of the Rocky Mountain West that truly frighten me are (1) bull elk during the rut, and (2) buffalo at any time of year. I’ve had near misses with both — usually when I wasn’t paying close enough attention to something going on behind me.
If you’ve ever looked into the eyes of a testosterone-infused bull elk at a distance of 6 ft, you know what pure wild fury looks like. The last time it happened to me I was too petrified to move (or take photos.)
Likewise, the look bison sometimes get in their eyes sends shivers down my spine. This usually happens during the early-autumn breeding period, but bison are completely unpredictable and they can go off at any time of year.
Case in point: The photos below are of a Yellowstone bison taken in May of this year, just when the big bulls should be peacefully munching on the abundant new grasses and ignoring the cows with their newborn calves.
But for some reason the bull pictured below was mad as hell. He was all alone on a hillside, with nothing and no one bothering him when he just freaked out. Let me tell you, watching a one ton animal go airborne is quite a sight. And it happened two days in a row!
The first shot is from the evening of May 7, 2015; the last few were taken 24 hours later on the same hill. I apologize for the quality of the images — especially the last one where the bull clearly had his eyes on me and is on the dead run. He was probably 60-70 yards away from me when he started running, but man they can move! Frankly, I was thoroughly scared at that point and was more concerned with creating space than taking photos.
If you get nothing else from this story, at least you are now forewarned that bison are alwaysdangerous. And the animals in Yellowstone and all our other national parks are wild in the truest sense of the word. The only thing predictable about them is their unpredictability.