Wyoming Wildlife - June 2020

The Bigger Picture

Two greater sage grouse scurry across the Red Desert in pursuit of their young hiding in the sagebrush. With the arrival of cooler evening temperatures, the red desert landscape teems with grouse and other fauna.

Don't get too focused on one facet of nature or you could end up missing out

Patrick Wine
6/22/2020 11:32:00 AM

When people travel to Wyoming’s out-of-this-world destinations, they often focus their attention on the incredible landscapes or come to this part of the country for its abundant wildlife-watching. Who can blame them? Wyoming is home to an immaculate array of awe-inspiring scenery and some of the most diverse wildlife in the country from elk to black-footed ferret. But too often people come to Wyoming in search of one or the other. During my summer as a photography intern for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, I learned it pays to zoom out and see the bigger picture of how wildlife interacts with the landscape. Three trips during my Wyoming summer serve as examples of what people are missing.

A moment of realization
Rain, and lots of it. When photographing cinnamon black bears in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, rain is seldom a positive — mixing water and electronics typically doesn’t produce the best results. As thick misty-fog descended on my position, I decided to pack up and return to base camp near Tower Junction so I could process my images. When I rounded Pebble Creek and entered the open meadows, I was dumbstruck by the sublime landscape in my side-view mirror. Without a vehicle in sight, I walked along the banks of the river until I found the perfect frame. Once I composed my image and dialed in the settings, I took a few moments to admire the transcendent scene unfolding. In the distance, a fog bank settled about halfway up the canyon, gradually obscuring the ascending ridgelines with soft, blue tones of moisture-rich clouds. In the foreground, Soda Butte Creek snaked its way through the bison-filled valley as misty-rain softly danced on the bubbling surface. The scene was enrapturing. 
After I captured my first image, a lone car screeched to a halt nearby. The terse photographer inside, holding a large telephoto lens, shouted, “What animal do you see? Is it a wolf?”
With the verve of a young photographer, I replied, “I don’t. I’m actually photographing the mist playing with the ridges of ….”
The car drove off. At first I was astounded a fellow photographer didn’t see the majesty in the landscape I was photographing. But when five additional cars stopped and careened away with similar reactions, I had an epiphany. My fellow park visitors were so preoccupied with spotting wildlife they were oblivious to the beauty surrounding them. If it wasn’t a wolf or a bear, it wasn’t worth seeing. After I wrapped up my shoot, I pondered this dilemma and realized it’s a pitfall of many of those who venture into the outdoors: failing to see the bigger picture. 
In lieu of visiting a destination to search for a specific subject, such as wolves in Yellowstone, the tower at Devils Tower National Monument, the sand dunes in Wyoming’s Red Desert or the world’s largest jackalope in Dubois, explore everything surrounding your primary subject.
In Yellowstone, don’t focus solely on wolves or bears. Instead, look at the ecosystem as a whole. Travel the mountain landscapes, scrutinize unique geological features, observe volcanic wonders and relish the ever-changing river designs. And on top of that, watch how wildlife interacts with the world around them.
Secrets of Devils Tower
One of Wyoming’s most iconic scenes sits in northeastern Wyoming. Designated as America’s first national monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Devils Tower is known for the mystical igneous rock column that rises more than 850 feet above the prairie below. Nearly 400,000 people visit annually to hike along the monument’s perimeter and climb the tower’s vertical walls. I’ll admit it’s arduous to switch your gaze from the tower’s massive columns to other wonders in the park. But once you experience the bigger picture, the park transforms from a landscape-dominated visit to a place full of wildlife and unique scenes. 
When I first visited Devils Tower, I was humbled by the size and ancient lore the tower had on display. I’ve never been to a place quite like it. Within the first few minutes of my visit, I was greeted by a white-tailed doe grazing a luscious meadow with the tower rising into the background. As I captured the moment, visitors scurried by looking to get a better view of the tower unaware of the beautifully framed doe they were missing. I continued to explore the park's 1,347 acres and located an abundance of unique compositions along the roads and hiking trails. The base of Devils Tower was mesmerizing and full of alluring scenes that chirped for attention. Pine squirrels leapt from branch to branch collecting cones for immediate consumption and winter caching. A number of hikers passed by them without batting an eye. But they didn’t realize they were missing the breathtaking, daily interactions between landscape and wildlife.
Scorched pines, the product of fires in 1993 and 1998, line Tower Trail and provide nutrients for birds and other arboreal species in the ecosystem. When fires occur in pine forests, squirrel predation on pinecones can affect the regeneration and density of the regrowth process. In the area surrounding the tower, patches of unforested grasslands filled with charred stumps demonstrates this fascinating ecological interaction.
Brown creepers dart among the trees in pursuit of insects and mating partners. It’s tough to spot these birds at rest, but if you are persistent you can glimpse these small and unique birds. Above the tower there were peregrine falcons and vultures soaring along thermal currents as they searched for prey below.
Joyner Ridge, west of the visitor’s center, presents a breathtaking perspective of Devils Tower at sunset and hosts numerous photographers trying to capture the perfect shot. As the sun descends behind the Bear Lodge Mountains, vibrant colors ambush the tower with a luminosity that rivals the most pristine Teton alpenglow. 
Sunset results in cooler temperatures that attract several different species into meadows that cover the surrounding hills. White-tailed deer dominate the sunset scenery, but there is a large colony of black-tailed prairie dogs near the entrance to the park that is easily accessible and viewable from the road.

Desert into sea
The Red Desert, covering nearly 9,320 square miles in south-central Wyoming, is a high-altitude steppe of sagebrush, ancient volcanic formations and the largest living sand dune system in the U.S. Numerous oil and natural gas roads crisscross these Bureau of Land Management-owned lands which makes the area easy to access.
On the surface this arid landscape harbors nothing more than infinite amounts of sagebrush and sand. But a look at the greater ecosystem reveals a desert teeming with life.
Boars Tusk, the remnants of an ancient volcano, towers above the valley near Rock Springs and draws visitors from across the nation. Most hike around the peculiar formation, climb its cave-filled walls and ride all-terrain vehicles on the nearby Killpecker Sand Dunes. You have to wait until sunset to see the playfulness in the desert. It’s difficult to spot wildlife in the heat. During blistering afternoons, the landscape is devoid of life. When afternoon turns to evening, cooler temperatures transform the desert into a vibrant sea of life.
Along the roads leading to Boars Tusk, white-tailed prairie dogs can be seen feasting on shrubbery and other fauna. When wading through thickets of sagebrush, listen for their dog-like barking to locate individuals and their loose social colonies. Greater sage grouse, the largest grouse species in North America, glide in jubilation of the cooler temperatures. A short jaunt through the sage or a slow drive along the roads should reveal substantial numbers of these skittish birds. Coyotes, ground squirrels, bluebirds and other creatures also roam the landscape near Boars Tusk.
For those who traverse the ever-changing Killpecker Sand Dunes, wildlife is less abundant yet highly intriguing when spotted. Hiking within the dunes provides a real-time glimpse into the natural processes that formed the Red Desert and much of Wyoming’s geological features thousands of years ago. Hiking along the steep ridges, contrasting lights and shadows create astounding dunescapes that pop from the flat backdrop. Strange animal tracks fade with each gust of wind —stories written into the sand that travelers must race against time to read. During my visit, I noticed some minuscule tracks traversing a tall ridge and I began to follow them. Eventually, I came upon the tiny creature responsible: a tomato hornworm. While these fierce-looking larvae are common in gardens, spotting one atop a sand dune proves there’s more to the landscape than sand and wind.
Throughout the winter, snowpack covers the dune valleys — creating a vibrant oasis once the snow melts later in the year. Pockets of water provide a valuable resource for desert elk, pronghorn and birds like the American avocet. To my surprise, I was dive-bombed by one of these birds while photographing contrasting shadows on a dune ridge. Coincidentally, on the other side of the dune was a small pond where the avocet had nested with its partner. I watched these birds for nearly an hour and reveled that even in one of the most inhospitable places in Wyoming, a bird typically viewed along lakes and rivers can flourish.
The takeaway
During my excursions to these destinations, I captured photographs that displayed my philosophy behind travel: view the bigger picture by focusing on everything, not something.
When you view the destination as a whole —including wildlife, geological formations, plant life, and the landscape —you attain a greater level of understanding. This traveling ideology is akin to the life of a bear. If a bear was to focus wholly on foraging for berries, how would it gather sufficient calories for hibernation? Instead, the bear is omnivorous and opportunistic, looking at the bigger picture to consume any source of calories that may supplement its life or death objective. Similarly, devoting the entirety of your attention to a specific subject defies one vital aspect of traveling: journeying into the unknown and discovering something new. So, the next time you visit a destination, whether it be within the state of Wyoming or on another continent, remember to step back and view the sum of all the parts. As I always say, journey into the unknown, for those who discover are twice rewarded with knowledge.

— Patrick Wine worked as a wildlife photography intern for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department during summer 2019. During that time, he visited locations across the state and photographed more than 68 species of wildlife. A graduate from the University of Colorado, he currently owns and operated a wildlife, landscape and astronomy photography studio. 



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