This was big time Rocky Mountain winter conditions. From our arrival on Sunday afternoon through the time we left on Wednesday afternoon the harsh winter conditions never really let up. It was cold, from 4 to 15 degrees, but the wind never stopped blowing and wind chill temps plummeted well below zero. It snowed, and the winds whipped that snow into blizzard conditions – with white-outs on the road many times a day. For the most part the roads were passable, the park road crews working throughout the day on the worst stretches, particularly the section of road on the Blacktail Plateau between the trail head parking lot to the one-way Blacktail Plateau Road. That three mile stretch of road was consistently the worst. But no matter our discomfort, the animals had it worse.
The heavy winter snowfalls had blanketed Yellowstone valleys with at least 4-6 feet of snow along the road, probably much more on the surrounding mountains. The animals we photographed were enduring one of the worst winters in Yellowstone history. The storms blew across the Yellowstone plateau every day, one after another, each arriving with snow and leaving with wind.
On Sunday as we drove into Lamar Valley we entered a world of devoid of texture. The snow along the road matched the snow in the meadows, which matched the snow on the mountains, which matched the color of the sky. The continuous gray tone was unending and disorienting. Only the tire impressions in the snow on the road gave me something to square-up the world with, and stay on the road. I’m not sure I’ve ever driven into conditions like that before.
You go to Yellowstone in the winter to record the struggles of these animals to survive in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Life and death teeters on the edge for these animals – one day to the next, without let up. The death of one animal, either through predation (wolves or coyotes) or through winter attrition leads to the lives of other animals and birds being extended, maybe for a week, maybe longer. To some degree the extreme weather made it difficult to record these struggles – the constant storms and wind had sat down many animals – forcing them to take refuge in the forests, their own survival relying more on self-protection rather than eating.
Under these kinds of conditions you begin to grind a little, the slow going miles sliding by as you stare out across a stark, graphic scene of cold and snow. The usual cast of characters in the winter, like coyotes and foxes, were hard to find. We missed active red foxes at an elk carcass in Lamar Canyon by a few days. The wolves were distant, staying in the trees where most of the elk were hiding. Seeing gray wolves at a mile doesn’t hold any fascination for me and I don’t think we stopped to view them near Slough Creek even once.
Even through the drifting, blowing snow fresh predator tracks were easy to spot, but we never came up with any making the tracks. Last year I shot thousands of coyote and river otter images, this year just a couple of coyote shots and no river otters – the Lamar being frozen over and drifted throughout most of the valley. This year it was bull elk, bighorn sheep, and bison. Those were our most active animals.
We worked hard for the images we got. While Pebble Creek has often been an area in the winter that had good predator activity, this year we drew a blank. The road from Pebble Creek to Cooke City was vacant, even the usual moose around Cooke City were hiding. There was one large, very large, bull elk that kept our attention just between Lava Creek and the Blacktail Plateau trail parking lot. His massive rack wasn’t helping him survive the winter right now, I’m not sure I ever saw him fully raise his head up. We noticed in reviewing the images that his ribs were clearly visible, maybe this was his last winter and he was destined to help other animals survive – who knows.
While I photoshopped out his ear tag, this is a rather famously aggressive bull with the tag ID number – 10. A bull that has had to have his antlers removed by rangers for attacking vehicles in Mammoth Hot Springs in previous years. We were careful around him.
My final cut of images was about 600, not typical of a trip like this but reasonable considering the difficulty of the shoot, which I would rank as the most difficult winter shoot I’ve ever done in Yellowstone, since my first winter safari in 1994. Some occasional sunshine allowed us to shoot some landscape images, though I never got out my snowshoes. When I’m doing seminars around California I always tell folks that if they want to photograph the storm clouds rising out of Yosemite Valley they have to be there for the storm. If you want to photograph the life experiences of the wildlife of Yellowstone then you have to be there in winter … but come prepared for winter and it will not disappoint.