A Personal Exploration of the Ethics of Wildlife Photography in Yellowstone

Grizzly sow 399 and her yearlings, taken on Jackson Lake in 2014
Grizzly sow 399 and her yearlings, taken on Jackson Lake in 2014

A Personal Exploration of the Ethics of Wildlife Photography in Yellowstone

“Jane (Goodall) has taught me to never hold back in trying to protect the things you love, that if you act with a clear conscience, you shouldn’t worry about the people you’ll offend, because if you’re giving voice to creatures that can’t advocate for themselves, your priority should be defending them and not trying to please those who just don’t get it.”  Tom Mangelsen, the Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, and what he has learned from renowned wildlife advocate, Jane Goodall.

Grizzly sow 399
Grizzly sow 399

I’ll be the first to admit that combining my love for wildlife with photography sounded like a good, easy fit, except for the part about me not knowing much – if anything.

Kind of just figured that I would go in to take photos and everything would be wonderful and happy.  How can one not be happy when in the presence of wild animals?

399 yearling, 2014
399 yearling, 2014

Almost immediately I discovered that I knew little to nothing about the wild animals and their habits and behaviors.  And zero about the ethics of photography.  I am ashamed to admit those things, actually, because of an endless and undying love for animals.  I knew that they felt and cared but still had not gotten far past the part of oh, that is a beautiful animal and I want a photo, at any cost.

399 and yearlings, spring 2014
399 and yearlings, spring 2014

After a couple of years of playing around with wildlife photography in national forests and on refuges and such, I discovered the national parks.  Quite frankly, being a single woman who is traveling alone, I felt like being out in the “wild” in a national park would be the safest option for me.  And, there was  just something special about these places that our federal government had decided to preserve, that made me want to be a part of the magic.

The inscription on the Roosevelt Arch just outside of Yellowstone’s north gate, said exactly what I needed to read – “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”  I needed not only a safe place to be but also one that said that I was as welcome as anyone else.

Truth be told, I went into the park system with sparkles in my eyes and dreams of beauty, day in and day out.  Never once did I imagine the challenges and controversies that have come my way.  Many a life changing moment that would change me for all time and threaten to strip me from all joy that I sought.  Being a photographer and animal advocate in a national park has been my life’s greatest challenge to date.  But, my strong commitment to the inscription on the arch and the truth has kept me moving forward, because I belong in Yellowstone just as much as anyone else.

Not long after I arrived inYellowstone there was an interesting learning experience.  Many of us were photographing the elk rut on the Madison and I was camping nearby in order to be out there in the early morning, when the fog still hovered above the river.

The bull was out with his girls and I wanted to capture the entire scene.  And, so I stood back to do just that.  Many of us stayed back for that shot.  But, there were some who were quite close to the bull and we had to set up in a way that would avoid getting them in our shots.   But, they kept moving and blocking me and I kept moving to adjust.  Finally, I asked them to quit getting in my shot and they were quite rude, telling me to get closer and to get over it.  That was quite an eye opener for a bright, starry eyed woman who was just embarking on the journey of her dreams.  And, many more lessons would follow.

Photography in the national parks is difficult on many levels.  First, you have the park rules.  Then you have a wide difference in the way those rules are enforced with some rangers being super strict and if you are 98 yards from a bear, move back two yards.  While others, who seem to know the bears fairly well and don’t mind working animal jams, take each case as it comes.  There are times when it might be okay to be 25 yards from the bears and other times when it is not.  Different parts of the park handle animal jams differently.  But, there is also a difference in who the rules apply to – visitors, unknown by the park, often get a pass even though they are dangerously close to the animals, while some photographers will be held to a higher standard and the letter of the law.  Meaning that some have the advantage of not being known and can get away with being closer and getting better shots than others.  Fairness to all is not well known in all areas of the park.  Although, the majority of the rangers do try to be fair to everyone, while allowing them amazing opportunities for viewing and photography.

And, so, right off there are the rules and then there are the rules with a lot of discretion involved.  For someone who is trying to abide by the rules, this can be confusing.

The park has another rule, made for the satisfaction of the wolf watchers but hardly enforceable, that you can not go towards the animal at any distance that will disturb them from normal behavior.  Meaning that, technically, if an animal is 300 yards away and you move in its direction causing it to turn and run, you have disturbed its behavior.  Meaning, technically, if you are watching an animal that is 300 yards away and it keeps stopping to look at you, you are disturbing its behavior.  Most photographers I know want to get the shot and so are not intentionally attempting to disturb the animal.  Intention is the main ingredient when charging someone for this offense.  I might want to get closer, as the law allows, but definitely do not want to disturb it and make it run away.

And then there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  In Yellowstone we are required to be 100 yards from bears and wolves, 25 yards from all other animals.  Frequently, we might be at the required distance, or close to, and an animal will move closer to us.  With wolves this generally means that they just go on by quickly but with bears they are apt to move closer and continue grazing.  We are required to adjust our position when the animal comes closer.  The law does state that we are not to remain less than the required distance.

Many photographers say that they do not agree that being less than 100 yards to a bear is too close unless they are disturbing the animal.  Some animals are not disturbed by our presence and they do come closer to us by choice.  In principle, I tend to agree that if an animal comes closer on its own, I am probably not disturbing it.

But, and this is a big one – there are many problems with that reasoning when you are in a national park.  One, the rangers are not going to buy your excuse – “Oh ranger, it is okay, the animal came to me.”  Another issue is that we do not know for certain that something won’t disturb the animal and cause it to act defensively.  Such as, someone trips over a rock, disturbs the bear cub and mama goes on the attack.  Anything can happen.  And, the more you are in close proximity to the animal, the more habituated it becomes.  We have all seen what habituation has done to the wolves that people used to get to photograph up close, they are all dead, many by the hands of hunters and poachers.

So, there are the rules, people’s interpretation of the rules and the different ways in which they are enforced.  And, any beginning photographer would be constantly grappling with what is right and what is wrong, until they know those things in their heart, above and beyond what anyone else does or has to say.

While I was constantly struggling with “doing the right thing,” the true moment of asking myself the hard questions is still fresh on my mind.

I remember the morning clearly.   399 was out, near Signal Mountain, with her two yearlings and they were very close to the road.  I was overjoyed to see the grand lady of the Tetons but some of the local photographers had recently been the recipients of citations for being too close and so everyone was on guard.  The tug of war between the rules and our desires felt like a charged electric wire that floated in the rain between us.  Some were very close, others, myself included, were moderately close and keeping a distance of 50 yards or more, and still others were standing way back.  It was nerve-wracking – that desire for the photos of the famous grizzlies and the concern for getting caught being too close.

Yearling, 2014, taken the day I began thinking
Yearling, 2014, taken the day I began thinking

After we had been watching them for awhile, and I had gotten caught on the wrong side of the bears, compared to the location of my car, the family crossed the road and went to the shore of Jackson Lake.  It was when they crossed the road and continued as they followed the shoreline, that I noticed that 399 looked pained by our presence.  This was my interpretation.  It was as if she closed her eyes against a terrible headache called the paparazzi.  At that moment I realized that the bears were not enjoying our presence one little bit and that we/I were being selfish.  Had I thought of this before?  I don’t think so, not in that way.  That look she had, it is etched in some of my photos but also in my brain and has been the driving force behind my search for what is right and what is wrong in wildlife photography.

Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek on jackson Lake
Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek on jackson Lake

I ask myself the questions nearly every day – what is right for the animals?  Am I being selfish and putting my needs before theirs?  The answer always seems to be yes.

At some point I made the decision that just because the bears were out – whatever bears – did not mean that I had to be there waiting for the shot.  Did not mean that I had to be in the crowd waiting for the right moment, hoping for that time when they might get a little bit closer and maybe climb a tree or a rock.  Maybe mom will nurse the cubs, or all three will stand up together.  There are so many cute bear shots on my bucket list but in order to get them, I have to be there, ready for that one special moment.  And, that moment might not come for hours or days, or not at all.

Because, I do not believe that it is right for the bears or other animals to be in the continual company of humans who are standing by waiting for the shot, I believe that they need a break from us – that it is only fair.  And, I believe that it is our responsibility to minimize the chances of the animals becoming dangerously habituated to humans – something that could put them in conflict with hunters, cars or people getting too close.

Love Bites from mom - The family on Pilgrim Creek Road.
Love Bites from mom – The family on Pilgrim Creek Road.

And, so, since that day with 399 I have limited my time at animal jams – mostly with the bears.  I simply wanted to be one less person and say to myself that the animals were more important than my photos.  I still feel that this is the right decision for me but have to admit that when I looked at the results of hundreds of missed photo ops, I experienced a jealousy that surprised me.  And, I clearly saw that just because of my decision to stay away it didn’t mean that the animals were going to be alone and enjoying a peaceful day.  From a competitive standpoint, I definitely lost.  From a personal standpoint, it was my choice and that felt good, but as far as the results and whether it makes a difference, the jury is still out.

This fall I was disturbed to hear that a little grizzly cub named, Snow, had begun to be comfortable around people and cars.  The last I had seen of her she was not one bit comfortable with us, but that changed in a matter of days and only spelled disaster for her.

I wrote the park’s bear manager, Kerry Gunther, and asked what he thought we could and should do to help the bears.  It was Kerry that drove home everything that I had begun to learn on my own – that the continual presence of people/photographers were putting the bears at risk.  He explained that there are photographers who camp out with the bears from dusk to dawn, daily and for weeks at a time, putting themselves in continual close contact with the animals.  And, that those photographers were the ones who were showing everyone where the bears were, just by being there waiting or having their big lenses out and taking photos.  His recommendation was to put the bears’ welfare first and try to limit the time spent with them, hopefully resulting in fewer crowds knowing where they were.

The next time I saw Snow and her mom, Raspberry, it was astonishing to see the difference in their behavior and their comfort around the crowds.  And very upsetting, particularly when we left them only a few feet from the road after dark.

Raspberry and Snow
Raspberry and Snow

While I did very much limit my time with these bears, the pull to photograph them – the cute cub – was compelling and I simply didn’t want to be left out all together.  I reasoned that there were already people there with them everyday and that one more for a few hours here and there wouldn’t hurt.  Justifications, yes.  Competition, yes.  My desire for nice images, yes.  There was nothing in my motives that spelled anything good for the bears.  Except for, maybe, the night I stayed until they had safely crossed the road.  Did I get too close, yes.  Could I have gotten any images by standing back at even half the required distance, no, it is impossible to shoot through people.  Did I find it hard to leave them alone when my gut said it was time to go, no.  I left.

In the end, I can see no way in which photography will not disturb the animals, or be fair to them.  I feel the same about animals that are constantly watched also.  True ethical photography means leaving the animals be to do what they need to in order to survive.  I don’t know, exactly, where to go from here.   I still feel that the images of the animals, along with their stories, are important to those who can not be in Yellowstone or our other national parks.  And, the documentation of history is important also.  But, do I set aside my beliefs, what I know to be true, to go for broke in the photography game – probably not.  Or, probably even less than this past year.

I know one thing, that if I were to do something to harm these animals, it would literally kill me and that is not an option.

Oh wait, the world was told that if something happened to Raspberry and Snow their blood would be on my hands.  Get a grip with reality dude, you were the one there every single day, not me.

The family crosses the road and the cubs stay close to mom while she looks closely at us.
The family crosses the road and the cubs stay close to mom while she looks closely at us.

NOTE:  Yes, this post will be unpopular to those who are not interested in hearing the truth or don’t want others to hear the realities of what goes on in Yellowstone during our attempts to take photos of wildlife.   An attempt has already been made to shut me up but I will not be bullied into silence.  The truth is the truth and the facts can not be disputed.  I can be discredited by exaggerated stories and downright lies, but the truth remains – The shot is more important than the animal.



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

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7 thoughts on “A Personal Exploration of the Ethics of Wildlife Photography in Yellowstone

  1. Very interesting observation. I can’t imagine how I would react, unless I saw an animal being harmed. I could not allow myself to continue to stand and wait, knowing by habituation to humans, that animal could perish. I think the respect you hold for the animals speaks of your ethics and respect of the rules, the surroundings and the animals shows in the people that gather to read your words. They would not be here if they saw any flaw in what you do, compared to what you describe. You are a true advocate.

  2. Deby I just read your post. It is the best thing I have ever read on the ethics of photography in Yellowstone or anywhere else. It is well thought out, honest, and, best of all, it is written with your specific experiences. It truly couldn’t be better. Thank you for taking the time to write it. It is obviously from your heart. The whole Yellowstone photography situation will never be right, but hopefully you made people think. Now if the park would just make this required reading for everyone coming into the park.

  3. Deby, I enjoyed yet another one of your articles and beautiful photos over my second cup of coffee for the morning on my day off from work. It is said, ” sometimes a person has to stop and smell the roses” well that’s what I do when I read your stories about Yellowstone National Park and the wildlife. My family and I were visiting the park first week of June 2014 and looked and looked for 399 around Pilgrim Creek but could not find her or her cubs during our visit. Was I disappointed, yes, but it didn’t ruin our week trip into the park. We were still able to explore, hike and see other wildlife. We saw other grizzlies, wolves, owls, buffalo and elk to name a few. I do miss Yellowstone and it is wonderful that you post articles, stories and photos. Please continue to do what you do and a great big THANK YOU.

  4. Very interesting reading and it is thought provoking. However – even if you and every other local stopped photographing them daily, the crowds of visitor photographers with everything from a DSLR to a cell phone would still be there every day.

    At least the locals know the rules – the thousands and thousands of visitors either don’t or aren’t willing to abide by them. That’s sad – but also an unpleasant reality.

    It is a conundrum with no easy resolution. You can stay away from them – but they won’t be left alone unless the parks are closed to all visitors. And there are three million plus reasons why that won’t happen…

    1. That is true Jeff. To some extent. I believe that if there aren’t people camped out at the bears everyday, fewer people would find them because they are often hidden. For the most part a lot of the visitors would drive right on by, none the wiser.

      But, people are not going to change and that might force the park service to be more strict at sightings. We have seen that in the Tetons and in some areas of Yellowstone. It is usually poor behavior that ruins it for everyone. And, yes many of the visitors are poorly behaved but when out there with Raspberry and Snow they were usually the ones to move back first. So, familiarity does breed complacency. I know that is true for me.

  5. Deby
    You have changed how I look at the world and I love it!! Yellowstone is my heart, it’s beauty, it’s nature!! I now look at things differently than I ever have in my life!! I have always loved animals but now I think about ‘them’ instead of ‘me’! It is totally you that has given me this gift!! I hope someday to somehow become a ‘trained’ advocate and educate people such as you do!! I think the national parks need more volunteers that help people understand that these are ‘wild’ animals and that we want them to stay that way!! Right now I work full time and the only moments I have with these beautiful creatures is with your words and pictures!! Thanks you from the bottom of my heart!! Someday I hope to meet you but until then know that I keep you in my thoughts and prayers daily!! Thanks for all you do!!! Diane

    1. Diane, thank you for your kind and passionate words. What you have said makes my journey worthwhile. If I can get just one person to look at these animals as feeling beings with needs not unlike our own, that I have done my job. Yours is to pass that along so more people learn. Good luck with your goals. I would love to be an educator in Yellowstone, unfortunately, that is not in the cards and so I do it through social media. Deby

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