CULTURE KLASH: A Perilous Journey to Jackson

By on September 27, 2017

Joe Riis to chat about his new book, “Yellowstone Migrations,” Oct. 5

The migration from upper Green River Valley to Jackson is a perilous journey of more than 120 miles, one that requires dodging cars on highways, navigating energy development and subdivisions, fording rivers and climbing over mountains. Still, each year, about 400 pronghorn make the trek, despite the clear dangers that await.

Their journey first captivated photographer Joe Riis a decade ago, when he was a wildlife biology student at the University of Wyoming.

“Migration is fundamental for a wild animal,” Riis said. “It’s the freedom to roam. It’s the idea of renewal and reassurance that the winter is going to end and turn to spring. It’s also the passing of knowledge from the old to the young.”

But when Riis initially searched for images of the pronghorn migration online, he couldn’t find any. So he decided to take his own.

A decade later, Riis, now a National Geographic Photography Fellow, is known for his migration photography. His work photographing migrating pronghorn, was followed by documenting the recently discovered longest mule deer migration from the Red Desert to Hoback Basin and then following elk across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

He’s compiled more than 100 of those images into a new book “Yellowstone Migrations,” which he’ll be on h

Photo by Joe Riis

e us an idea of what the wild planet has to do to eat and reproduce.”

There was a reason Riis couldn’t find images of the pronghorn migration online a decade ago. No one had mastered how to photograph the animals without influencing their movements. Pictures of pronghorn on the migration route always showed them running away from the camera.

Riis devised a system using digital cameras triggered by motion to remotely document the animals. The process was labor intensive.

First Riis needed to identify the exact migration path the animals traveled. Then, after securing permits and permissions from land owners and managers, he needed to select areas he thought would best capture images of passing animals.

It was trial-and-error. An animal could bump a camera and change the framing. Water or snow could accumulate on the lens.

Sometimes he’d check a camera and find it hadn’t documented anything he could use.

Other times he’d discover images, such as the one of a doe with her leg caught in a fence that illustrated the perils of the journey.

“Some of my best pictures are pictures I could never have imagined,” he said.

The cover image of “Yellowstone Migrations” is one such photograph. It shows a group of pronghorn crossing the Green River in 2009. Riis said he never could never have planned for the doe looking toward the camera, its shadow illuminated on a nearby rock.

Should Riis have set the camera just inches to another side, he wouldn’t have created the iconic picture.

The book is a compilation of a variety of images that tell the story of the three animal migrations.

“I’m less interested in one specific migration and more interested in helping share the story of the process that is fundamental for the wild planet to survive,” he said.

The story of migration in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is about more than just animals crossing an unforgiving natural landscape, though. It’s also about the people and agencies who have come together to ensure the natural process can continue, he said.

It’s not by chance these migrations still occur despite development, Riis said. It’s because people fought to keep routes intact.

“People often ask me ‘How can we help (the animals migrating)?’” Riis said. “They don’t need our help, but they need to be allowed to continue doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years. We just need to give them time and space.”

Riis will sign copies and talk about his work from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at Valley Bookstore in Jackson. PJH

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