ETHICS OF WOLF PHOTOGRAPHY IN YELLOWSTONE NP

by Deby Dixon, a wolf photographer and advocate

Spitfire, March 2013


Recently, Spitfire, or wolf #926F, was killed by a hunter in Silver Gate, MT, only a mile from the NE boundary of Yellowstone National Park.  

Back in December, 2012, when Spitfire’s famous mom, 06′, was killed by a hunter in Wyoming, little was known about her and she was easily overlooked, with her mom and beautiful sisters taking center stage.

I remember, the first time seeing the Lamar Canyon pack after 06 was killed, someone asked where the small black female was, and another person replied, unenthusiastically, “…probably with the pups.”  Back then, Spitfire was known at the “Small Black Lamar Female,” and wolf watchers couldn’t understand why we called her Spitfire because, her name was “Small Black Lamar Female.”

Spitfire howling for her family

Some folks thought that I had named Spitfire but that wasn’t true.  Some park visitors had observed a young, feisty black wolf out messing with the bison one day and remarked about what a little spitfire she was.  No amount of asking watchers to let this little, special wolf have a name that didn’t require an entire sentence, would make them budge because wolves are typically named after physical characteristics, such as, “Small Dot,” “Big Dot,” “Butt Her Face,” “Puff,” “Ragged Tail,” – well, you get the idea.  So, where did “06,” come in?   That was the year she was born but the name was acceptable.  “Spitfire,” was an attitude that this wolf, later collared as 926F, lived up to all of her life, because she never gave up.  

Well, I was new to Yellowstone when 06 was killed and had zero history with the Lamar Canyon Pack – a fact that I always rush to point out because watchers found me to be the least desirable of Yellowstone visitors, because, “First and foremost, I was a photographer.”  And, my reputation went downhill from there, with Idaho license plates and don’t you know, everyone in Idaho wants to kill the wolves.  Then there was my own spitfire attitude and a mouth that can only speak in direct sentences, “Like what the hell makes you think you own these fucking wolves?”  When watchers decided that I was not suitable to viewing the wolves, even at great distances.  Which was turned into mental instability and violent tendencies accompanied by threats and a gun.  

Watchers remain in close proximity to the wolves as they cross the road.

But, first and foremost, I was a photographer.  While I did dream of getting beautiful photographs of wolves, like the ones that I had seen taken by folks who were very well liked by the wolf project – close with a lot of detail – my main goal was to learn about the wolves.  But, my privileges to see the animals had been revoked by the wolf posse, who, at that time owned Lamar Valley.  So, how was I going to learn?  Well, I had to take desperate action and advocate for myself, knowing that other visitors didn’t own the wolves and had no business saying who could be in the park and seeing them.  I had to get written permission in Mammoth!  Not literally but suffice it to say that there were meetings and a clarification of ranger responsibilities was doled out.  This did not make things any better.

Luckily for me, Spitfire was not well-known or liked by many people at this time.  And, there were other wolves to watch, like the new Junction Butte pack.  The Lamars had left Yellowstone and moved to Wyoming and only Spitfire, her sister, Middle Grey and their younger brother, 959, or Prince, returned to the park.  Prince, when he returned, had been collared by Wyoming, but before that, there were no collars so the pack couldn’t be found easily.  

I remained loyal to the pack.  My first favorite, 820, was kicked out and forced to raise puppies on her own.  Middle Gray was a sweet wolf but it wasn’t until Spitfire returned that my heart exploded with this wolf’s tenacity and ability to survive the hardest of circumstances.  She starved herself for Middle Gray’s pups and was nothing but skin and bones.  Often, Spitfire was on the road, looking for squished ground squirrels that had a habit of darting beneath our tires as we drove the road.  She did not care about people at all, they had always been a part of her world and she had accepted that fact.

March 2013, I found watchers with the Lamar Canyons 20 to 30 yards from the road.

So, at this time, I was the only full-time photographer in Yellowstone, going out into the park every day and looking for the wolves.  I focused on the Lamar Canyons and when they were too far away, became a watcher of wolf behavior, asking endless questions because it all fascinated me.  And, little by little I began getting to take photos of Spitfire.  Every night I went home to excitedly edit my images and write a story about my encounter with this amazing wolf.  Good photos were pretty near impossible due to being required to maintain great distances from the wolves, but there were a few lucky encounters.  People who loved Yellowstone and the wolves began to read my stories and new people came along and got to know the wolves through my eyes.  Spitfire’s fame skyrocketed with each new story that I shared about her and she quickly went from the wolf no one knew anything about to the reason people were coming to Yellowstone.  So many had one goal in mind for their trip, to see Spitfire!  And, so I was the beginning of Spitfire’s fame but never could have gotten people excited about her, without seeing her, photographing her, and recounting her trials and tribulations.  As more people/photographers became acquainted with Spitfire, more photos and stories about her began to surface and that is the cascading effect of photographing identifiable animals in Yellowstone.  

Imagine my surprise when less than 12 hours after sharing that Spitfire had been killed by a hunter, a wolf advocate posted on one of my pages that her death was directly related to people, (me) getting photos of her.  Without those of us who spend a lot of time in the park, working quite hard to get photographs and witness the lives of these wolves, and then generously sharing all of that with strangers on Facebook, no one would have known anything about Spitfire and her life.  No one would have cared whether she was dead or alive.  She would have been a faceless wolf with no history, that got in the way of a bullet.  Granted, I didn’t chronicle her life and make it public in order to make this wolf famous, I did it for the most noble of reasons – I wanted people to learn the truth about wolves and to care about them.  Over the course of the years I received countless letters from people telling me that they had hated the wolves but through my stories had come to change their minds.  This was invaluable to the wolves, that people were changing their minds.  And, another cascading effect, because with each new supporter, the wolves had more people that could stand up for them and convince others that they belonged in the eco-system.  

A highly critical wolf watcher crosses the road in order to photograph 889 with his point and shoot camera.

Well, to be perfectly blunt, 926 was habituated when I met her, as were most of the Lamar Canyons.  I didn’t do that with my photography – whether others did, I can’t say.  Some people had some amazing shots of the Lamar Canyons and they were being championed by those who watched the wolves and continually criticized me for, say, driving down a road.  So, nothing made sense.  As a photographer I was supposedly harming the wolves, from the many hundreds of yards I was required to be away from them, while watchers were routinely very close if at all possible.  And, with the use of telemetry, watchers found the wolves every single day and followed their every move from sun up to sun down, and making it easier for photographers to see them as well.  I was only able to get close to the wolves when following the movements of the watchers and regulars, who had no problems with being close.  

While there are photographers who, in my opinion, don’t deserve to be around wild animals because they don’t give a damn about what they need to do for the shot, I really cared about the wolves.  And, I cared about the rules and doing the right thing.  Yes, I made mistakes but everyone does and they certainly weren’t intentional.  I sat back some and watched the watchers, noticing the wolves continually reacting to their presence and needing to change course because they were blocked by humans.  Despite what I saw, people kept claiming that watching wolves through a scope doesn’t habituate them.  Yet, the wolves always knew that they were there.  Yet, wolf puppies, watched from hundreds of yards away and never photographed, had no fear of humans or roads.  I wasn’t buying  what they were selling.  How dare they blame photographers for everything while doing exactly what they claimed that myself and a few other non favored photographers did?

Two years ago, in Soda Butte Valley – a day that changed everything.

In my opinion, everyone who visits the park contributes to the habituation of the various wildlife.  But, those who find and follow the animals every single day were the ones who were making the animals feel safe around them, with their scopes and cameras pointed their way.  They were used to traffic, voices, food smells, doors slamming, people screaming at one another (we have often been screamed at by watchers,) fast moving cars, hikers, planes, etc.  And, they have no way to know about invisible boundaries beyond which they can be legally killed.

But, it appears that no one is willing to stop following the wolves every day, despite the fact that this activity contributes to them becoming habituated and not having any fear of humans or black objects pointed their way.  Wolf watching in Yellowstone is big business and a number of people make a lot of money off  of getting to see the wolves.  So, there is no admission that this activity is contributing to wolves being killed, instead, photographers get the full blame.

Just a youngster, very thin and chewing on a dried up hide – she never gave up.

So, advocates are calling for photographers to quit photographing the wolves while they continue watching and following them around.  Because, don’t we want to do that for the safety of the animal?  Well, don’t you want to quit watching them, for their safety?

Yet, these same advocates, got to know these wolves through our photos and stories.  They shared this on their Facebook pages and made themselves popular by focusing on Yellowstone wolves, something they could have never done without us photographers.  So, I would question their motivation for calling for such action and say to other photographers, why don’t we just quit sharing our photos and stories, and see then how many people care when the next wolf gets killed?  We will see then how we lack for educational tools that we can share in order to educate the public.  

Spitfire and the bison

As you can tell, wolves in Yellowstone are fodder for big, fat human fights that don’t contain ethical content.  So, in response, I say, let us find the wolves just like we do all of the other animals.  This would hurt my ability to find them for photos and clients, but if we are truly caring about the wolves and not ourselves, our egos and the human drama, wouldn’t we be willing to do this?  Quit following the wolves every day, quit making them so special, and allow them to be just another integral part of the eco-system?  

Over the years I’ve often said that wolves in Yellowstone are safer and live longer due to their protection, and this is true.  The White Lady was 12 when she was killed.  And, the price that they pay for that is to educate people with the facts of their lives and why they are important.  This is an essential job for these wolves because it is due to following their lives that so many people care about them.  And, so many people are outraged about the death of Spitfire.  But, the human drama, the pointing fingers and blame game, the exclusive clubs and misuse of park resources by visitors who apparently think that they have special privileges is getting in the way of the good that the wolves do.  And, the good that advocates, such as myself, do, and the balancing act is tilting in the wrong direction.

She always got the last word


We should let the well-documented life of Spitfire speak for itself and why wolves belong on this earth.  

deby

Owner, publisher and photographer for The Yellowstone Daily. And, passionate about nature and wildlife

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