There are times when being a wildlife photographer has its rewards. In September 2005 I was hired by a natural resources company to travel to the Ute-Ouray Indian Reservation in the northeast corner of Utah to photograph wildlife. There were two reasons they wanted this done: First, they wanted to document the reservation’s wildlife and provide a stock library of images for use in marketing the beauty of the reservation via calendars, postcards, etc. Second, they wanted images that showed how well the natural resources company integrated into the lands of the reservation, which they had leased for natural gas exploration, and they wanted images of the local wild horses (feral horses) and the helicopter elk collaring operations that were ongoing.
After getting the information I needed (and payment, in advance) about where and when, my last request was to have an assistant come along. They agreed and I had a good friend of mine, Casey Bell of Providence, Utah – come along. Here is the anchor photo for this blog article.
Our Indian guide met us at the designated spot and we followed him back into the mountains in the dark until we got to the operations center around sunrise. There were about 20 people there, among them the helicopter team pilots (father/son), a cook, a couple of executive industry types, about 6 invitees to witness the elk collaring operations, and about a half dozen Indian’s employed as the jumpers. Besides the pilot of the chase helicopter, there was a guy shooting the net gun, and two jumpers who leaped from the helicopter once the net had captured the elk to restrain it and begin the collaring procedure.
I was in the front right seat of the photography helicopter, a Huey, with the door off and secured by a seat-belt harness. The sliding door in the back was open as well. The pilot and I could talk on the intercom system and I would suggest direction and angles to best keep the action fully in the sun. The horses (above) were actually running up and over the ridge in this image – though it appears like flat ground in this image.
The chase helicopter (with a Vietnam War-era pilot) would dart into the trees when they spotted the elk and try to drive them into the open sagebrush areas. It was amazing to watch how effortlessly the helicopter twisted around stands of aspens and pines, the elk 20-30 feet below. Again and again the pilot would maneuver into position so the guy with the net gun sitting behind him, could lean out of the helicopter for a clear, close shot.
In the photography helicopter the vibration was terrible, as shown by the unsharpness of the image above. I was shooting handheld primarily with my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens and my Nikon body. But this wasn’t in the day of VR (vibration reduction technology) or of high ISO quality sensors. Shutter-speed at a relatively low ISO (200) was dependent upon whether the sun was out or the clouds, and almost all these images were taken at either f2.8 or f4. Behind me Casey was shooting with a wider lens, probably a short zoom – though I can’t remember which now.
There were times when we carried out very slow orbits above and to the side of the chase helicopter as it worked the elk. After a couple of hours (and a trip to the portable gas tank for the helicopters) I thought my shooting technique improved and I was getting more quality images. Once we ran out of elk we split from the chase helicopter and began the search for the wild horses that ran throughout this area, north of I-70 and the Book Cliffs, south of Roosevelt and Fort Duchesne, Utah – and west of Colorado. From the air the country was spectacular in typical fall colors. Sometimes the horses wouldn’t break from the pinyon pines and aspens, so we landed and pursued the images on foot.
With the horses very active we moved from one small herd to another. Probably my favorite encounter was with a group of four – a stallion with a white main, two mares, and one colt of the year. We were on the ground working through meadows of deep sagebrush trying to get into position with the light when the horses began a slow approach – the stallion first followed by the others a short distance back. He was magnificent with rippling muscles and a long, flowing mane – and he acted aggressively towards me from the moment he started in our direction. There were no physical charges, just a lot of annoyed looks and some muscle twitching.
We photographed bison, elk, wild horses, sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, wildflowers, and mule deer, as well as some scenic landscape images. I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of airplane and helicopter commercial photography jobs – and I have to say that I have liked them all. I had never spent any time in these mountains previously.
While the horses weren’t native wild horses – they were feral horses, escaped from ranches, wagon trains, the US Calvary back in the day – and some might have had mustang blood in them, descendants from the Spanish horses the first Europeans brought with them when the explored this country. Today it’s hard to not think of these horses without thinking of the Indian cultures that first captured and trained them. When I think of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, or the Blackfeet – I just naturally think of the horses that were part of those cultures as well.
Not far south of the 1.3 million acre Ute-Ouray Indian Reservation is Nine Mile Canyon, east of Price, Utah. The canyon, which stretches for about 30 miles going northeast, is lined with thousands of petroglyphs etched in classic Fremont Panels, dating back to the Fremont Indian culture, and some maybe back as far as the Anasazi Indians – the ancient ones. As I finished this photography job I couldn’t help but feel history all around me. BRP