Now is your chance to peek into your neighbors’ windows, brazenly and unapologetically, to see what the heck is going on in that raucous house next door.
National Geographic has devoted the entire May magazine to Yellowstone National Park, Montana’s neighbor to the south. The issue appeared online Friday and will hit newsstands April 26. Inside are photos and articles that go where most of us will never be able to trek, giving a deeper insight into the complexity of one of the nation’s most incredible wild experiments.
“The photos and the stories are quite amazing,” said Amy Bartlett, Yellowstone spokeswoman.
As a side benefit, Yellowstone will receive rights to use some of the photos and videos for educational purposes.
“This was definitely a very special partnership,” Bartlett said. “It’s something the park staff worked on with National Geographic for two years. The goal is to get people to see some of the challenges Yellowstone faces.”
Although the special issue may draw a lot of attention to Yellowstone, Bartlett said the park doesn’t need more advertising because of the problems it is already facing. Last year more than 4 million tourists visited the park, a new record.
One of the Yellowstone region’s own — writer David Quammen who has lived in Bozeman since 1984 — was picked in 2014 to write the entire issue of National Geographic to give the stories a common voice. He said it took him all of five seconds to agree to then-editor in chief Chris Johns’ pitch.
The agreement led to a two-year odyssey for Quammen — winter ski trips into the Pelican Valley with Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith; a flight in a slow-moving Piper Super Cub from Bozeman across the park’s vast steaming landscape with veteran pilot Roger Stradley; and an eight-day horseback trip into the most remote region in the lower 48 states with biologist Arthur Middleton, photographer Joe Riis and Cody, Wyo., outfitter Wes Livingston. These were only a few of Quammen’s trips.
Adding up the different modes of travel he used to explore the park, Quammen could name about nine, including by rope when he rappelled from the 13,776-foot top of Grand Teton peak in Wyoming.
“National Geographic is a great door-opening brand,” Quammen said in a telephone interview from Boston, where he was researching his next book, fielding other phone interviews and speaking to groups about Yellowstone.
The attraction to exploring the region and writing about its complicated geology, history and ongoing conflicts appealed to Quammen in part because of one of the park’s inhabitants — the grizzly bear. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park to the south hold the only viable grizzly population in the American West.
“The single most precious fact of the Yellowstone ecosystem is preserving that population of bears,” Quammen said, an animal he called “big enough to eat you.
“It’s very important we preserve that.”
Quammen questions whether removing Yellowstone grizzly bears from the protection of the Endangered Species Act will help or harm the preservation of such an important population.
“I really want people to learn how complicated this issue is, as well as how important it is,” he said.
Although he has no desire to hunt the great bears if seasons are ever opened in Montana and he has opposed delisting in the past, Quammen said he is slow to condemn hunters.
At age 68, Quammen has written about such varied topics as Indian tigers to the disease Ebola. The stories have been published in magazine articles, books and even a novel. But none of those are quite like the comprehensive look at Yellowstone that National Geographic is taking, partly because the in-depth stories are paired with the magazine’s amazing photography.
There are scenic and wildlife photos of grizzly bears bathing in a backcountry pond and bull bison in a dirt-throwing shoving match.
“I’ve been here 22 years and never heard of the bear bathtub,” Bartlett said.
There are also photographs of some of the people tied to the landscape like Tom Miner Basin range rider Hilary Zaranek Anderson and her two daughters pictured sitting on the concrete steps of a rock house.
Photographer Erika Larsen composed that last photo, one of several large format portraits she shot for National Geographic while other photographers explored the wild reaches of the backcountry.
“We each worked really differently,” she said in a phone interview from her car parked on the side of a road in Minneapolis where she’s working on her next project. “I went back seasonally and finished my last shoot in December.”
Larsen made her very first trip to Yellowstone about 20 years ago during a cross-country drive after high school.
“My first impression was that it was a really, really lonely place,” she said.
The fires of 1988 still scarred the landscape, giving the park a sense of looming disaster, she recalled.
Since she’s gotten to know Yellowstone better, her favorite place now is the Orange Spring Mound atop the Mammoth Terraces.
“It’s like it’s from an old Star Trek movie,” she said. “When I’m standing there I feel like I’m waiting for shadows from two suns to appear.”
There are still wild places in Yellowstone, and even in the front country at places like Orange Spring Mound visitors can find a measure of quiet. While photographing the feature Larsen said she has seen few people despite its nearness to the park’s North Entrance. Will that last?
Quammen foresees a time when tourists may have to park their car and board a tour bus to enter Yellowstone to avoid the growing vehicle traffic that clogs Yellowstone’s arteries every summer.
Proof of the park’s popularity with foreign tourists can be seen in West Yellowstone, the small community at the park’s West Entrance. In the town Quammen counted six Chinese restaurants, four of which had signs in Mandarin.
“That tells you something about trends in tourism,” he said.
Quammen had wanted to board a bus with Chinese tourists for one of his stories, but that never worked out. Other stories he did write that weren’t published in the magazine will be included in a book about Yellowstone due out at the end of the summer.
Quammen wasn’t the only person working on the National Geographic article who had a strong tie to the Yellowstone region. Photographer Joe Riis, a biologist and University of Wyoming graduate who took up photography to add context to his field work, had his elk and pronghorn migration photos included in the May issue.
“It’s been pretty exciting for me,” Riis said from Salt Lake City where he had just finished the first of what will be several talks about his work in the Yellowstone ecosystem with fellow biologist Arthur Middleton.
A photo of still-spotted elk calves climbing a rocky, dusty ridge in one of the last remaining wildlife migrations in the United States captures the essence of all of Riis’ hard work, he said. The elk had just swam the South Fork of the Shoshone River and were climbing the hillside, the calves’ mouths are agape as if breathing hard from the exertion.
In a 10-foot-by-10-foot pinch point along the route, Riis set up his camera trap to capture the shot. He figures it took him 30 visits and 375 miles of horseback riding over several years to get that one important image. The time stamp on the photo was 10 minutes and 10 seconds after 10 a.m. — 10:10:10.
Riis’ photography for the May National Geographic issue allowed him to work under iconic photographer Michael Nichols, who Riis had long idolized for his interweaving of wildlife and humans and the conflicts therein, such as photographs of famed chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall.
“There are millions of pictures made for that magazine, so to get it dialed down to 60 or 70 images touches on the quality of the pictures in National Geographic,” Riis said. “I think it’s an issue that will live on and, more importantly, be used as an inspiration and tool for management into the future.”