In Berkeley: NatGeo Society photography fellow talks about his breathtaking new book

Pronghorn antelope migrating towards the Tetons in Wyoming. Joe Riis has dedicated a decade of fieldwork to his Yellowstone Migrations photography project and is talking at the David Brower Center in Berkeley on Feb. 1

Yellowstone Migrations, the breathtaking new book by conservation photographer and National Geographic Society photography fellow Joe Riis, was published last fall by Braided River, a nonprofit imprint of Mountaineers Books.

Riis will appear at a special event on Thursday, Feb. 1 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, titled, “Where Wild Beauty & Science Meet: An Evening with Yellowstone Migrations Photographer Joe Riis.”

Also participating in the event will be Jon Jarvis, former head of the National Parks Service and current director of UC Berkeley’s new Schools for Parks, People, and Biodiversity, along with Arthur Middleton, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and a fellow of the National Geographic Society.

Berkeleyside asked Elaine Miller Bond, an acclaimed wildlife writer and photographer in her own right — and regular Berkeleyside contributor — to interview both Riis and, separately, Middleton, a book contributor, to gain a behind-the-scenes perspective on the science behind the images and the lessons learned by taking long-distance journeys side-by-side, season-after-season, with elk and other ungulates (hooved grazing mammals).


These migrations, after all, help keep Yellowstone alive.

Interview with Joe Riis

Conservation photographer and National Geographic Society photography fellow Joe Riis

Migrations have apparently inspired you ever since you were a child, wondering about the seasons and the comings and goings of birds. Can you describe what it is, exactly, that drew you into tracking, photographing, and writing about ungulate migrations?

At the time, I was trying to find a focus within my photography. It was between 10 and 15 years ago, and at that time, with the advent of GPS collaring, the idea of migration and the idea of wildlife corridors was just starting to go mainstream, and a lot of scientists were just starting to get into that field.

I saw migration as a theme that was going to be increasingly important to show the general public through pictures.

Because it was my schooling [Riis is a trained wildlife biologist], I also was interested in the science aspect of things. And I was learning more and more just how important migration is for wild animals. It’s absolutely essential.


It’s almost that migration equals wild.

It’s the freedom to move.

It’s a process that I was learning about, and I was kind of a believer in it from the beginning, just because of the science — that it was going to be really important into the future as we continue to develop and try to learn about our planet.

I was seeing that the story was really going to be important, and personally I hadn’t seen many photography stories that really showed migration, that really helped people understand what migration is, what migration looks like.

Now, looking back on it, I feel lucky that I found a theme to work on — a story that I could spend 10 years on and really dedicate the time to. I feel lucky that I found a story like that that hadn’t been told in photographs.


It was a very important story for the survival of the wild planet.

How did this story grow for you?

The one story that people would read about was the “Path of the Pronghorn” which is the famous small group of pronghorn that migrate from Grand Teton National Park through the mountains down into Southern Wyoming.

At the time, it was the second-longest known land mammal migration in North America, second only to the caribou.

That migration was in the media, and people were talking about it, just because it was an easy migration to understand, because there was a distinct summer ground and a distinct winter ground.

The summer ground was a national park, fully protected. The winter ground was one of the biggest natural gas fields in the lower 48.

The pronghorn traveled through highly protected lands, like the park, and then into lands that are slightly protected, like Forest Service and BLM [lands], and on to private lands.

It was a migration that was talked about, and everybody used it as an example, but there weren’t many pictures of it, because getting those pictures — the pictures that really show a migration — takes a long time.

So my goal was to focus on the pronghorn and to try tell that migration story, and that’s what I did for 2 years, right out of college.

I graduated college and then I essentially moved into the back of my pickup and then moved to western Wyoming and basically said, “Now, I’m a wildlife photographer.”

And so I photographed full-time and I tried to make a story that no one else had made yet — the story of migration of pronghorn in Western Wyoming.

That work led me into National Geographic, and I did stories elsewhere, all around the world.

Then I came back to Wyoming and started doing deer migration work about 5 years ago. The deer migration was recently discovered; it had not been documented before.

I worked directly with the researcher — my first time working in close partnership with a researcher. His name is Hall Sawyer, and we collaborated for a couple years on the deer migration.

Then this past 4 years, I’ve been doing elk migration work full-time with a researcher and professor from UC Berkeley, Arthur Middleton.

Elk are like the meat of the ecosystem.

They’re a super-important animal both for the livelihood of the people and also the predators.

I had not spent much time on elk in the beginning of my career, but since I met Arthur, they have been my primary focus.

With Arthur, it’s been a great scientist/photographer partnership. We’ll probably work together for the rest of our lives on projects, just because I think, right now, the world needs more projects where people from different backgrounds partner together: science and storytelling.

Your photographs have been described as “visceral” as well as “breathtaking” and “awe-inspiring.” How did you achieve such impactful images?

The viewer is the person who decides if they are impactful or not, but here’s a little about my process:

Most of my work is with camera traps. That’s what I’m known for, but to me, the camera traps are just a tool.

I’m not really into cameras; I don’t necessarily like the tech side of my work. But I deal with it, because, migration is one of those essential processes in a wild animal’s life. It’s what they do to eat and reproduce. It’s what they do and who they are; they have different homes.

In that process, they have moments that essentially define who they are:

It might be a 12,000-foot mountain pass, or a birthing ground, or a river that’s swollen from snowmelt, or area where they get predated on by grizzly bears.

Those places kind of define the wildness of them.

So my goal would be: how do you show those moments in that animal’s life? How do I show that intimately?

Typically, if people are present, those processes don’t happen, because you’re influencing the animal with your (or my) human presence.

So the way to get though that is to use a camera that’s motion-triggered. The animal, essentially, with its motion, triggers the camera. It does not influence the animal, and then, I get the picture.

It’s the best of both worlds.

There’s the process of how it all works, then there’s the perspective of how I actually set up the camera.

My perspective is the one thing I have control of. That includes the lens and the camera settings and where the camera is and shooting from.

So I try to think: “What’s THE perspective? What’s THE ultimate and most incredible angle that typically makes you feel like you’re right down in there in the migration in and amongst the animals?”

That’s the perspective I want to see.

Then there are all the other variables, like getting the camera in before the animals actually get there, making sure the camera works, making sure there are no raindrops on the camera, making sure the light is perfect. Everything.

Typically, it results in things not working perfectly but then my continuing to work the same spots over years. If I see something happen in late May, then the following year I know I need to be there in mid-May.

Then the process is to constantly check cameras, trying to refine the shot.

At the end of 10 years, I essential have three frames, three moments in time, that I’m super-proud of. In my approximation, I’ll probably have five to seven perfect pictures at the end of my career.

And it’ll be worth it.

With wildlife photography, one usually imagines the use of long telephoto lenses. But you seem to take a more wide-angled approach. (This requires that the camera be very close to the main subject/animal in the frame.) Can you please describe what this means for capturing landscape?

Yes. The landscape is the second-most important thing.

I’m shooting at an angle that’s wider than the human eye can see. On 35mm format, I’m typically shooting 16 or 17mm.

So the animal has to be really close to the front of the lens. Also, the landscape has to be there to give it perspective and for people to be able to see the habitat where these animals live.

When I’m picking a spot, I’m definitely trying to find a place where I can see a landscape. Then the camera is just going to wait, as long as it needs to, until the animal walks in front of it.

I essentially set up a landscape picture, and then I wait until an animal walks into it.

When you were 15 years old, you discovered a box of old cameras in your family’s basement, and you practiced with one of them, a Canon F1, in your backyard. You wrote about this experience: “Little did I know that I was developing a way to express myself and find meaning.” How does it feel now, as an award-winning photojournalist, holding this glorious book in your hands?

It feels really good, of course. But when I look at it, I see a decade of my life.

I look at the cover picture, and I know the exact morning I walked up to that camera and checked it. I open the pages, and I know.

It’s all I was doing, so I see a chunk of my life in this product. And I was probably most happy when I handed a copy of it to my mom and my dad.

Because a book, to me, feels very real, and when you sit down and look at it and look though its pages, it’s something I’ll hopefully be able to show my grandkids.

Hopefully other people are moved by the pictures and enjoy learning about the migrations and the people who care about and live among these migrations.

One word moved me in a beautiful way in the book and during this interview, and that word is “wildness.” What does wildness mean to you?

To me, it means moving with the seasons, finding food, reproducing. Wildness is that sustainable cycle. That’s what “wildness” feels like to me.

And we have it. We have it in the 21st century, which is incredible.

And we need to work together in order to keep it that way.

Interview with Arthur Middleton 

Elk migrating over a high mountain pass on the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. This photo was made with a motion triggered camera trap. The elk did not know that they were being photographed. Joe Riis has dedicated a decade of fieldwork to his Yellowstone Migrations photography project.

Throughout the book, Yellowstone Migrations, intimate yet magnificent wildlife photos and crisp, poetic essays give a sense of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as the beating heart of the American West, its rhythm pounded out in hoof-beats. What motivated you to follow the region’s migrating elk, over months and years, over 1,500 miles, on foot and on mule back, climbing peaks with elevation gains as great as 4,700 feet?

A number of things came together.

First was the growing recognition among my colleagues and I that migrations were more numerous on the landscape, occurring in more diverse species, than we had previously thought.

We were also recognizing the importance of migration to the individual animal; it’s how they get the good grass and gain the fat that allows them to nurse a healthy calf or fawn and survive the harsh winter.

When you add all this up on a herd level, and multiply across many herds and species, at some point, there came an “ah-ha” moment: the realization that migration was actually a fundamental phenomenon, that it really gave us the values we get from the landscape of the West, that it gave us all this abundance and diversity of life.

Another important influence on me was my collaborator Joe Riis, the photographer, and how much he was moved by the migrations in different ways. I was affected by his appreciation of their beauty.

And a third reason was seeing, socially, how meaningful these migrations are. Because if you follow them, as I had followed a migrating elk herd, you see how many different people they connect, who need to be in a relationship with each other, having some kind of conversation, in order to keep the migration healthy.

This [need for connection and conversation] speaks to a broader challenge in the West.

When you describe the need for people to connect, and its challenges, are you alluding to the need for wildlife corridors (keeping safe natural passageways open and connected for animals)?

Yes, wildlife corridors are a manifestation of what I’m getting at. But I feel it’s bigger than that.

I think these long migrations make abundantly clear a threat that is hidden in lots of other natural resource issues: the consequences of failing to “get along” and solve problems collaboratively.

These animals walk from one property to the next, from one jurisdiction to the next.

We’re in a time when people are in conflict about a lot of things. So it was pretty affecting for me to realize that we were looking at this phenomenon that will live or die by the degree to which people can talk to each other and work together.

So yes. It’s about corridors. But it speaks, too, to something much bigger about our way of doing business in conservation.

Do North America’s ungulate migrations — those of elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, or bison — offer any other lessons for people?

People have learned from these animals for ages. Many of the pastoralist practices in North America and worldwide are actually based on what these animals do.

Pastoralists — especially ranchers grazing livestock on open range — have to figure out: “How do you make a cow or sheep fatter?”

[Answer:] You move them to the places where the pronghorn and the elk and the deer go spend their summers and their winters. Those wild animals have found where the best food and shelter are.

There’s a cattle drive, for example, in the Green River Valley in Wyoming. I believe it’s the longest cattle drive in the lower 48 states. It’s called the “Green River Drift,” and about 7,000 cattle are driven more than 100 miles.

These [drives] are basically on the same route as the mule deer and some pronghorn and elk.

Looking ahead, I think these animals can teach us the problems with some of our boundaries. We make a lot of boundaries on the landscape, and they can become problematic for wildlife.

People are always going to have boundaries. But how can we soften these boundaries so we’re still getting what we need while maintaining the flow of life across the landscape?

When mule deer migrate, the does apparently lead the herd; the bucks follow. And in bighorn sheep, as I’ve previously learned, younger individuals gain knowledge of migratory routes from elders of the same gender, generation after generation. Are such behavioral “traditions” at risk?

Yes. Globally, they are very much at risk, and a lot of people who study migratory animals are very concerned.

These migrations, at least in animals like elk, deer, pronghorn, are learned behavior. If they erode because of our human impacts, they may not come back.

They [Migrations] are, in a way, “cultural.”

So if we do have impacts from development, or roadways, or habitat loss that diminish a migration, some of those impacts may be reversible.

We might be able to restore the landscape. But we might not be able to restore the animals’ knowledge of how to use the landscape.

This is something we don’t know all the answers to. It’s a very active area of research.

I was surprised to learn that brown bears (grizzlies) can climb steep scree (glacially deposited rock debris) slopes, where they dig up and feast on as many as 40,000 Miller’s moths per day. And I was moved by the elk herd that slowed its pace to enable a female with a broken leg to keep up. Did anything you discovered while tracking elk migrations surprise or move you?

Some people ask me: “Why, as a scientist, unless you are actually collecting data and observations that go into a new study, would you spend so much time out following those animals around?”

We can get a lot of this tracking information, for example, from satellite collars and satellite imagery.

There are a number of different reasons why. But one of them is: you just have to.

You have to establish some kind of connection with the animal and the landscape that you’re studying. And you see things that you never would have had imagined, but which can end up shaping how you think about future research.

One surprise, for me, was in learning more about interactions between grizzly bears and elk. They have one type of relationship one week and then, a few weeks later, have a totally different relationship.

In early summer, many grizzly bears intensively hunt elk calves. So they are very dangerous for elk, and elk cows avoid bears very strongly to keep their calves alive.

But within a few weeks, the young elk calves get up to a size and a speed where grizzly bears just can’t catch them.

I saw this numerous times out on the high plateaus in Southeast Yellowstone, in an area called, the Thorofare. A few weeks earlier, I’d have been watching elk herds being very wary of grizzly bears, not being anywhere near them.

But then we’re up on these high plateaus where the elk have arrived for summer, and the grizzly bears had switched to grazing. There they are, out grazing grass in the middle of a herd of 100 elk! Everybody totally comfortable with each other.

Those are the things that affect my thinking about the system. They raise questions about behavior that I’ll probably think about for years to come.

I had to be out there to see that.

You wrote that your “dream” for this work and this book was to be “restorative” — between ranchers, biologists, conservationists, wildlife managers, hunters, and outfitters. Between people and the land. Do you feel this dream has been realized?

Yes. I’m very optimistic. But I’m thinking on both near-term and multi-decadal kinds of timescales.

I don’t think we have to wait that long for some things. Many organizations are working on habitat protections, conservation easements, highway crossing structures, and fence removal, as we speak. There have also been some new policies at the state level, for example in Wyoming, to add protections for migration corridors.

But in terms of collaborative relationships, it’s taken conservation, ranching, and agency cultures a long time to get where they are. And it takes a long time for them to change or to understand each other better.

In terms of that deeper cultural change, I think it’s on the scale of the evolution of whole fields and cultures of practice.

I hope that we can contribute to concrete near-term conservation gains as well as long-term cultures of respect across the boundaries over which these animals have to move.

You were inspired to collaborate with National Geographic photographer Joe Riis much like the pioneering geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden collaborated with photographer William Henry Jackson on the 1871 expedition to Yellowstone. Their work together helped contribute to the founding of the National Park Service and Yellowstone National Park. Can you describe the “power” of partnering science with photography?

We don’t commonly link science and photography, or science and art, or science and other forms of media. Instead, we compartmentalize and silo these too much.

I’m starting to believe that it’s going to be pretty rare for anything really significant to happen, at least in my field — in conservation — going forward, without people in the sciences and arts and humanities working together.

In the Hayden case, it wasn’t only the work of a geologist and a photographer and an artist, either. It was editorials in The New York Times. It was magazine accounts of this “foreign, mysterious place,” Yellowstone. It was all of these things.

And it’s pretty clear to historians that if you had taken any one of those out, then the creation of Yellowstone, our first national park, might not have happened.

I hope, in my corner as a professor at Berkeley, to try and help students figure out how to combine these disciplines, because it’s really important on a lot of levels.

It’s really powerful when it all comes together.

Professor Middleton expressed his heartfelt gratitude for the scientific colleagues, agencies, nonprofits, ranchers, sportsmen’s groups, and others who helped make the pictures, the science, and the book possible.

Yellowstone Migrations is available online from the publisher, Braided River and locally at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore. The current exhibition at the Brower Center, Douglas R. Tompkins: On Beauty, runs through Feb. 21 and features the photographs of the late conservationist Doug Tompkins

Elaine Miller Bond is the author/photographer of ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Living Wild,’ lively children’s board books from Heyday Books in Berkeley. Read more of her stories about local wildlife written and photographed for Berkeleyside.