Every week Bob Landis is hunting for a trophy, only instead of using a rifle to make the kill he’s packing a video camera.
The veteran wildlife filmmaker, now 76, returns to Billings on Monday, Dec. 12, for his annual narrated showing of his most recent clips at the Mayflower Congregational Church at 6 p.m. The event is a fundraiser for the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society and costs $5. The program includes a holiday dessert social.
Landis is possibly best known for his cinematography for the 50-minute documentary “In the Valley of the Wolves” that compresses three years of filming in Yellowstone. But his wildlife images have been used in many other films produced by such prestigious titles as Nature and National Geographic.
Making a leap
One of the best clips Landis will feature on Monday is a coyote’s encounter with a golden eagle at the Blacktail Ponds in Yellowstone National Park. During the spring and winter several bison had fallen through the pond ice and died. When spring thawed the ice and the carcasses came out of “cold storage,” a variety of scavengers showed up for the feast.
Landis was there to film the encounters.
When a coyote dragged off what appeared to be one of the bison’s stomachs, a golden eagle saw a chance for an easy meal. Dive-bombing the coyote three times, the eagle appeared to be punching the canine rather than sinking in its talons, Landis said.
“It was more like it was counting coup, knocking the coyote down a little bit,” he said.
He’s filmed similar scenes before — one of his more famous is of an airborne bald eagle stealing food from a coyote’s mouth — but in his opinion this interaction was even better.
“Usually the coyote relents,” he said.
But not this time. Angry and annoyed, the coyote retaliated by leaping “almost vertical” at the big eagle the next time it swooped down.
Luckily, Landis captured the encounter in slow motion with his camera.
That may not seem like a big deal to cellphone owners who now have the technology to shoot slow motion. But back when Landis first started shooting, a slow-motion shot required special film and processing that would cost about $500 for one-and-a-half minutes of shooting time.
“With this it’s dirt cheap,” he said of digital cameras.
North to Alaska
Although constantly filming life-and-death struggles among wildlife, Landis took much of 2015 off from his profession for a much more personal fight — to be with his wife, Connie Landis, a longtime Billings high school and college art teacher who was diagnosed with lymphoma. Last August the illness took her life.
So this summer Landis returned to Alaska and Denali National Park, a place Connie had first encouraged him to visit and where he got his start in wildlife filmmaking in 1965. He hadn’t been there in 22 years. The trip’s highlights included a black wolf going nose to nose with a grizzly and footage of a sow grizzly chasing a small ground squirrel.
“When I went to Alaska that was like a victory lap, for sure,” he said, a reaffirmation that he’s not giving up on filmmaking until they “take the camera out of my cold, dead hands.
“It’s too easy here,” he said from his home in Gardiner. “As long as I can drive and work out of the back of my car.”
Despite his many years of filming, often in harsh weather and with many long hours spent simply waiting for something to happen, Landis’ desire to capture unique and unusual wildlife encounters has not waned, although he’s tried to cut back his field time.
“I’ve got to reconcile myself to the fact that it doesn’t pay to be out there every day,” he said. And yet, “You never know what you might miss. The worst words are: ‘You should have been here yesterday.’”
On Monday he was disappointed that he had missed a chance to film a large wolf pack killing a bison along Slough Creek. He’d been to the creek in the morning, but either the kill had happened before he got there and he just couldn’t see the wolves, or it took place shortly after he left.
“If I’d just stayed,” he said regretfully.
Slough Creek is a regular stop along his Yellowstone drive route. In the summer his routine starts at about 5 a.m. Because of the hours he keeps the record-setting increase in Yellowstone visitation hasn’t been too visible to him, except when there’s a bison jam or other wildlife on the road that backs up cars.
“It’s the price you pay to film in the only temperate region in the world with such incredible wildlife opportunities.”