I’m Jared. You haven’t seen me around these parts before and that’s because I’m new here. Kevin recently brought me on board Wildside Nature Tours to help design and lead a new series of photo safaris and expeditions which we are working on in various locations around both North and South America right now. One such place that you will find my name next to for the 2012 season is Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons photo safaris. This is without a doubt, one of my absolute favorite locations in North America to photograph.
This place is both North America’s Serengeti and Alps at the same time. No other place on the continent can claim what is has to offer in terms of both wildlife photography and landscape photography. This is literally the only area in the lower 48 states that has every single species of animal that was there before Columbus bumped into the so called New World. Yeah, this place is that cool.
Hyperbole you may say? Think again. For starters the valley known as Jackson Hole is the start of the only federally protected migration route in North America – aimed at conserving the regions abundant pronghorn (one of the last truly American species). There are 5 distinct and very large wolf packs that call this place home. Grizzly bears are almost a daily occurrence in the Spring and Fall, and black bears are so numerous that you will be hard pressed to even find an official study on their population in the area. Eight hundred bison, over ten thousand elk, roughly one thousand moose, an extremely healthy population of mule deer all call this valley and surrounding mountains home. What may be the best studied population of cougars resides here as well. And all of this, this is just the charismatic mega fauna. This doesn’t even begin to include the smaller majority.
Great horned owls nest throughout the stands of cotton woods. Great gray owls raise their young in the spruce / fir forests. Sage grouse, Colombian sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse, and blue grouse make this landscape their home. Some 9 different species of owls, 4 species of hummingbirds, 8 species of woodpeckers, golden eagles, bald eagles, and all three color phases of the red tail hawk can be found here. This list goes on, way on actually with 305 species of birds to be found in and around this valley.
But here is the thing about Jackson Hole: this area does not give up its secrets easily. Sure, some species such as bison and pronghorn are an inevitable. You will always be able to find these creatures. The rest however, despite what is one of the most impressive lists of fauna diversity in the country, can and does routinely elude photographers time and time again. Simply knowing that these animals are here is not good enough. Just like simply knowing that there are big dramatic and cathedral like mountains is not good enough to guarantee a successful landscape shoot in Jackson Hole. The key to being successful here is exactly the same as being a successful nature photographer anywhere on Earth. And what exactly is the key to a successful shoot in Jackson Hole? Homework.
Yeah, that’s probably a bit random, but think about it. The more you know, the better off you will be when coming to photograph in a place like this. This is why you will always have the best photographs of the area around where you live. You know that place. You know the best locations, the best times of year, the best opportunities, etc. . . Likewise, chance favors the prepared mind. Its cliché, I know. But it is true.
So, how does all of this effect photographing in Jackson Hole? Well if you want to photograph wildlife, first and foremost you need to know what makes your query tick. All successful wildlife photographers are also naturalists. Unless you want to leave everything up to dumb luck – which is mighty expensive on photography trips – than you need to know as much as you possible can about what you want to photograph. When it comes to this type of photography, understanding the biology of the animals that you wish to photograph and how that they relate to the ecosystem that they live within is paramount to success.
Case in point: bighorn sheep. These are a personal favorite of mine. In the spring, these sheep
can be found broken up into two basic groups – bachelor groups, and natal groups. Up high, the alpine areas are still buried underneath of many feet of snow. Food is unavailable there, and thus they remain down low. Once those snows begin to melt however, the sheep will move back up above 10,000 feet and unless you are ready for some mountaineering expeditions, you have lost your opportunity to photograph them until late fall when they move down the mountains again to escape the deep snows.
Now, for these sheep, not all mountains are created equally. They have their preferences, and have stuck to these preferences for probably thousands of years. On Miller’s Butte for instance, each spring you can find both rams and ewes peering over the rocky cliffs at you along its southwestern edge. Year after year this is a known hot spot for these sheep. Well as it turns out, on top of the butte are concentration of old stone hunting blinds that had been erected and used for possibly millennia by the tribe of Native Americans in the area known as the Sheep Eaters. Like plains Indians dependence upon bison, this culture was inextricable from the sheep that they hunted – complete with bows fashioned from the horns of the rams.
Just to the west in the Gros Ventre range is a mountain known locally as the Sleeping Indian (yeah, it really does look like a sleeping Indian). This is where these sheep will be in the summer months, atop of the Sleeping Indian, above 10,000 feet as they chase spring and cooler temperatures to higher elevations. From April to late June, you can find these sheep in various locations between Miller Butte and the Red Hills that lie at the base of Sleeping Indian. You simply will not find them anywhere else in the area. Once temperatures begin to climb into the upper 70s and low 80s, the sheep are making their way up to their summer range.
This has a lot to do with food, but it also has a lot to do with what we call thermoregulation – that is, their ability to regulate their body heat. For an animal who has evolved to thrive above the tree line, their body is well adapted to the cold, but not the heat. The same is true for many animals in the region. Moose are another personal favorite of mine and their winter coats are so insulating that temperature above 23 degrees Fahrenheit will actually cause heat stress and you will find them panting! Summer coats and heat stress are similar when temperatures rise above 67 degrees.
So what does this mean for trying to find moose in the park? You need to be out very early or out very late in the day to find these guys. If its warm out, you shouldn’t even waste your time. And, you need to find those cooler environments that they prefer – river bottoms with cool water, dense trees, and loads of willows that they prefer to feed on in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. Moose are a creature of the far north. Everything about their way of life attests to this to the point that some researchers are beginning to look at moose as indicator species in terms of the health and wealth of an ecosystem in the face of global climate change.
With around 1,000 moose in the valley, the majority of these animals are concentrated around a handful of locations. Do you know where those locations are? You now know why they are there, but you also need to know where thee places can be found. The Snake River, the Gros Ventre River, the Buffalo River, Cottonwood Creek . . . Are you starting to get the picture? Of all these locations, the Snake and the Gros Ventre are the hot spots – both because of ease of access for us, but also because of the super abundance of food and appropriate habitat for thermoregulation. Remember, this is about as far south as you can find moose, so they work hard to keep things just right for themselves.
Elk are the same way. Like moose and bighorn sheep, elk are also a species that thermoregulation plays a big role in the daily movements of. Save for the winter and late into the rutting season, elk are extremely crepuscular in nature (meaning active at dawn and dusk) and this is when you should be looking for them. During the day, the wapiti, as Native American cultures across the continent typically referred to them as (meaning white rump and derived from the Shoshone language) are hidden away in dense forests. Elk want cool dark forests to bed down in during the day, with open meadows and sagebrush flats to forage when appropriate. This fact alone will almost pinpoint every single key elk area in the valley and park. It just takes you pulling up Google Earth and a few other maps and resources to locate these locations.
Ok, so let us look at the other side of the coin for a minute. We realize that moose, elk, and bighorn sheep are extremely dependent upon temperatures for their behavior and biology. Other animals however, such as bison and pronghorn stand in stark contrast to this. These animals can be found all day long standing around in the open sagebrush flats and old fields of smooth brome that was planted by Mormon settlers in the valley in the late 1800s. These are both species of the open plains. They have evolved to live in an environment where dense trees were not an option for shelter or shade, and each and every day experiences a huge fluctuation in temperatures. For this reason, they have a much more highly adapted hypothalamus that helps to control body temperature along with an advanced circulatory system that helps to cool down the brain.
In terms of photography then, this means that these animals are waiting for you all day long – as opposed to the other species of ungulates (hoofed mammals) in the park that cannot handle the higher heat.
So the moral to the story is to know before you go. All that I have discussed here is how different animals of one location deal with or do not deal with hot and cold temperatures throughout the day. This one thing, this one seemingly small and tiny little thing about these animals dictates so much of their lives. Maybe you knew this. Maybe you didn’t. But just think, if temperature can control so much, what else do you not know about these animals that could make or break a photography trip for you? What other seemingly irrelevant factoids to the great questions of life such as food and sex, are at work in controlling every single aspect of these animals’ lives in the valley of Jackson Hole? How do these animals respond to fire, which is a big part of life here? Do they prefer burnt areas? Do they avoid burnt areas? What about giving birth in the Spring? Why do all of these big mammals all tend to give birth at once, literally flooding the ecosystem with babies? What does this say about your opportunity to find predators like wolves and grizzly bear to photograph?
I can do this all day long. The point being however, is that this is why I say that successful wildlife photographers are also keen naturalists with an undying curiosity and thirst for knowledge of the natural world!
text and photos © Jared Lloyd