By Pam Linn


No photos with wolves

I’ve returned from my annual winter adventure into Yellowstone National Park weary but with renewed enthusiasm for wildlife and landscape photography.

I expect no trip will ever equal the sheer joy of my first, in 2003, the exhilarating discovery of bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, elk, bison, otter and coyotes. And birds, from the tiniest dipper to golden and bald eagles, all just trying to make a living under the harshest conditions.

That trip was my introduction to wolves. My rented lenses were sadly inadequate to capture their images, often almost a mile away. But those with powerful scopes were glad to share a glimpse.

Once in Lamar Valley before dawn we made a pit stop. I had walked a little way from the others just to absorb the scent of morning when I first heard wolves howling. Very close, just beyond a little knoll, they sang. And from three miles across the frozen wilderness came the answering call. That was a life-changing moment for me.

Since then I’ve leapt at every opportunity to return to the park. I joined the Yellowstone Association Institute, which sends me catalogs of Lodging and Learning courses. And while I no longer have any interest in collecting tchotchkes, I can’t resist buying books.

This time I came home with “Shadow Mountain,” RenĂ©e Askins’ memoir of wolves and the wild.

There were many others who worked tirelessly for the reintroduction of the ecosystem’s top predator, finally accomplished in 1995, and I’ve read most of their accounts. But “Shadow Mountain” (Anchor Books, A Division of Random House) is more than the story of this effort. In warm and evocative prose, Askins explores the meaning of wilderness and wildness, and the human connection with both.

But there’s dirty work afoot. After a disastrous attempt at stripping wolves in the Northern Rockies of Endangered Species Act protection, 110 wolves were killed in as many days; a federal court judge ruled for relisting So Bush takes a parting shot, not only at wolves but at conservationists in general, removing Idaho and Montana wolves from the list. Wyoming would still need to submit a better management plan.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental organizations vow again to fight the order in court. We all had high hopes that with the Bush/Cheney departure, we’d be wasting less money on lawsuits. Well, maybe not.

At least another federal judge last week halted the Bush administration’s parting gift to the oil and gas industry of opening 110,000 acres of public land in Utah to oil and gas exploration. Leases were auctioned off Dec. 19 on land abutting popular Arches and Canyonlands national parks. A coalition of seven conservation groups sued and won a temporary restraining order. Robert Redford will be so pleased.

Trips into Yellowstone are wonderful on their own merit, regardless of one’s political persuasion or the extent of one’s commitment to saving wild places for the next generation. And those courses led by scientists are amazing and enlightening in their own way. But photographers tend to focus not only on the techniques needed to make effective photos, but also on the nature of wildlife and how wild animals live and react to human observation. If they react, you’re too close.

Studying nature photography is much closer to the experience of people who are lucky enough to live on relatively unpopulated land among untamed animals.

I admit to being technically challenged, and having to update equipment every few years doesn’t help. It seems I’m always a little behind the learning curve. What saves my backside is simply some deep sense of where the animals are likely to be, what they’re likely to do and when. Call it instinct or whatever, it may just be the result of living on a ranch, building a house in wild habitat ultimately, and, a commitment to not harming any living thing.

When our instructor, esteemed wildlife photographer Tom Murphy, and my fellow students showed their work, it all seemed so perfectly composed and focused, and exposed, I was almost afraid to show my efforts. But my animal images-a new, still wet bison calf supported by its mother’s massive head as it tries to stand; a red fox stretching and yawning to show perfect rows of sharp little teeth; a golden eagle perched on a hillside devouring its lunch; three ducks diving in unison exposing their white-feathered behinds-all elicited oohs and aahs.

I felt a little better knowing I didn’t have to show the blurry bear and cub, the poorly exposed moose and other techno errors.

As usual I’ve returned with a wish list of new equipment: a macro lens, a polarizer, an extender for my 400mm lens and LightRoom for my computer. If I get that it will take me the rest of my life to learn and by then there will be new and better software but I won’t care.

Meanwhile, I’m booking a trip in June when the bears are out. Maybe I can communicate with them long enough to adjust my camera settings properly. For the wolves, I’ll probably still have to rely on the pros’ scopes.