Most wildlife documentaries are created to raise awareness of an issue: rhinoceros poaching in Africa, dwindling snow leopard numbers in Asia, the overfishing of tuna in the Pacific.
While no immediate threat looms for the thousands of Rocky Mountain elk featured in the newly released documentary “Elk River,” its creators hope to keep it that way.
“I hope people feel a sense of wonder about those migrations and about Yellowstone and that it still has these amazing things to show us,” said Arthur Middleton, the film’s producer, an assistant professor at University of California-Berkeley and a University of Wyoming graduate.
“And I hope people feel inspired to know more about and participate in the conservation of migrations and of ecosystems and connectivity. I hope people think a little differently about Yellowstone that it is connected to the outside world.”
The film was a collaborative project between Middleton, Joe Riis, a South Dakota-based photographer working primarily for National Geographic, filmmaker Jenny Nichols and artist James Prosek. It was the final piece of Riis and Middleton’s 2013 Camp Monaco Prize, an annual award given by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
“Elk River” is working its way through the film festival circuit where it won most inspiring adventure film at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival and the people’s choice award at the Les Bois Film Festival. In early March, National Geographic recently released the almost 30-minute film online to the public for free.
Riis and Middleton intended the film to help show viewers locally and around the world what the elk face as they migrate in and out of Yellowstone National Park each year. One of the themes of the movie — that Yellowstone is not a self-contained box — becomes clear as the viewer travels with Riis, Middleton and the Cody elk herd from ranches on the valley floor to the tops of 12,000-foot mountains.
The nine elk herds that migrate in and out of Yellowstone are the lifeblood of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, Middleton said.
The elk support not only a handful of apex predators such as bears and wolves but also countless people who ranch, outfit, hunt and hike in and around the mountains. Instead of glossing over the human relationship with the elk and focusing exclusively on the animals themselves, Riis and Middleton weave stories from locals who interact with the creatures the most.
Viewers meet ranch owners and managers and learn about some of the wonders and challenges of living with hundreds of head of elk. Hunting outfitters explain how their lives revolve around the creatures.
Showing those relationships was critical to telling the story of the migrations, Riis said. And the people who know the elk best were also critical to the success of the film.
It took Riis about two and a half years of filming to produce the shots of elk necessary for the documentary. Capturing wild elk streaming one by one over a snow-covered mountain pass, or forging a raging river is, in fact, as hard as it sounds.
Riis used six trail cameras to collect his footage. But before he could set the cameras, he needed to know where to go. Locals — everyone from outfitters to hikers — offered their intimate knowledge of the mountains and the elk movement.
From there, it was hundreds of miles and many months spent on foot and horseback.
Each motion-sensor camera was set to film for two minutes with every trigger. The end result was incredible up-close footage of the animals behaving in ways humans rarely, if ever, get to see. But it came with its own trials.
“Bears are on a lot of the same elk trails, and they will mess with anything. They would walk up to my camera and usually smell it and then I have to go in and check it and reposition it so it is looking down the trail and not at the ground,” Riis said.
That meant each time Riis checked a camera it would be like opening a present.
“I didn’t personally see the migration that often, but my cameras did,” he added. “Elk can sense people from a long ways away. If I was ever close by on the trail, they would run off. So the only time I would actually see migration is through the camera after I would go check it.”
For Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation CEO David Allen the film is not only an inspiration but an educational tool.
“It is fascinating to see how these elk truly are migrating and through what conditions and what terrain,” he said. “We all talk about it and preach it and believe it, but to actually witness it is incredible.”
And while the film is finished, Middleton and Riis’ work with migrations in northwest Wyoming is far from over.
Because potential threats to the iconic migrations do exist. Habitat, particularly on private land at lower elevations, can be developed and divided. The age-old routes the wildlife follow could be altered.
“The threats that they face are over decades and another century, where all the many things, the bites out of their winter range habitats, the invasive species that we introduce, the social tolerance levels getting low for having dense wildlife populations on private lands that we sometimes let get out of hand,” Middleton said. “If we don’t figure out ways to prioritize some of the key threats like private land development and the key impacts, yes, we could lose some of those populations over decades.”
But for now, for the 30 minutes it takes to watch “Elk River,” a viewer can marvel at the way countless generations of elk navigate Wyoming’s harshest country to form one of the most rugged North American migrations still in existence.