Wildlife Photography in a Busy World

February 06, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

As a wildlife photographer, I'm always looking for the 'perfect' shot.

A shot with great lighting.

A good-looking animal posed in just the right place, with a great expression on its face or performing some type of interesting behavior.

A shot that evokes emotion.

A shot that shows the wild animal in its natural habitat, undisturbed by human encroachment.

But, and that is perhaps a dirty secret of the trade, many times, the photographer has to put in the extra work to hide any human-made distractions from the image.  Many times when you make an image, something around the animal sticks out like a sore thumb.

Most of my wildlife photography is done on public land, be it in a National Park, on BLM land or in a National Forest.  Even in those 'pristine' environments, there are so many distracting things that, if included in the wildlife shot, would immediately remove most of its 'wild' appeal.  A road, an electric pole, powerlines, a barn, fencing, grazing cattle, a car, other wildlife photographers ... The list goes on.

Now, these unsightly things typically don't show up in the average wildlife shot.  After all, a grazing bear with cubs in an unspoiled mountain setting evokes more wildness and awe than that same bear shot with the inclusion of electric lines, a fence and perhaps a piece of the road on which the photographer is standing with his car.  A shot of a lion taking down a gazelle evokes more wildness than that same shot including the ten safari cars parked around said lion.

Nature documentaries from big players such as Disney, Nat Geo and BBC suffer the same dilemma and seem to exclude human-made things in their videos.  Story lines in documentaries that spin a dramatic tale about the featured animal are typically not even all of the same individual animal but are rather made up of shots of multiple individuals that are then edited together to fit the tale of life in the wild.  Human-made things like collars and ear tags are removed digitally in post-processing.

In an ever populated world, that's where the dilemma lies.  In my lifetime alone (I'm 48), the world population has doubled to 8 billion people.  That's a lot of people that need a place to live, electricity to reach our home(s), cattle and agriculture to feed us. The world population is expected to reach 11 billion by 2100. 

And we don't just live in our natural habitat: places where we can depend on a decent climate and natural resources immediately around us to survive.  There's a reason why you won't find a polar bear to photograph in Mexico or a moose in the Sonoran desert.  Having lived in Arizona's "Valley of the Sun" for several years, I always wondered how so many people can thrive and survive in a barren desert, with the Colorado river overextended to provide water for the people and the agriculture.
As an example, even the growing population in the Middle East is now rapidly depleting the aquifer ground water in ... drought-stricken Arizona; where Middle-Eastern companies grow grasses using Arizona's aquifers to ship the grasses back to the Middle East to feed their cattle to feed the human population.  
In perhaps the past 100 years alone, many agricultural lands around the globe have been depleted of their historically built-up water sources and nutrients, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers now having replaced natural nutrients. 

All of this to say: resources around the world are spread ever thinner, and, wildlife is running out of wild places, fast. Governments can no longer allow wildlife to be wild: there are simply too many humans on this world competing for the same resources that the wildlife relies on.  Species that can be hunted are managed to the extreme, not primarily to let the wildlife be wild and let nature be nature, but managed to maximize the number of animals that can be hunted.  Wildlife perhaps should no longer be defined as wild life but rather as managed life. 
Is this a good thing? No, not in my opinion.  Let nature be nature, let wildlife be wild. 
However, is it necessary in today's world? Yes.

Even protected wildlife species like America's wild horses have been contained in so-called "Herd Management Areas" since the 1970s.  Separate from the fact that the wild horses are now unable to migrate with the seasons to find food and water, these protected areas are open to cattle grazing, directly attributing to the government having to remove wild horses due to the lack of food.
A large number of grizzly bears gets "removed" (killed) annually by the government for cattle depredation which is perhaps unsurprising seeing how much land the average predator needs - including wolves - and how many portions of our public lands are opened up to cattle and sheep grazing, wild lands that are home to most of the remaining large predators.  About 155 million acres of public land is leased to ranchers to graze their 1.5 million heads of cattle at the (minimum) price of $1.35 per month per "unit of cattle," meaning a cow and calf, five sheep or five goats.  Of the estimated 500,000 coyotes killed annually in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture kills about 62,000 of them.

Does there exist a reasonable balance in the choice between feeding an exploding human population and preserving nature?

Yet here we are with an unending stream of wildlife images on Instagram portraying a life of undisturbed wildness.

So, the million dollar question for a wildlife photographer is: do you play pretend and work hard to make it look like the wild animals we photograph live in a (non-existing) world undisturbed by humans, surrounded by awe-inspiring vistas; or; do you include the undisputable impact of humans to show the real environment our wildlife is living in, including ugly collars or ear tags? 

The part of my brain that wants to make artistic images - whatever that means - always chooses to show wildness and exclude human-built things.

While many of us yearn for wildness and hear 'the call of the wild,' however, showing the human impact on the environment will perhaps open more people's eyes that the wildness that many of us think exists today, in fact has not existed for perhaps at least 200 years.

Sorry for the rant ... Now, for my own mental health, I have to go back to pretending that all is well with the world and our wildlife lives its life wild and free.

But first, here are some of my favorite shots of wildlife living in an 8-billion people world, while I searched the last remaining "wild" places.
 


With the average grizzly bear's territory ranging up to 600 square miles, it's virtually impossible for the bear to avoid humans.
Running out of space, these predators find some of their last remaining vestiges visited by grazing cattle and tourists/photographers like myself.

Fine art print available on Etsy: click here

 


Celebrity grizzly 399 and her four cubs cross a road in Grand Teton National Park

 


Prime moose territory was turned into a campground in Grand Teton National Park

 


Who needs a tree when you can scratch a traffic pole?
 


A collared fox hunts next to a road

 


A new-born bear cub finds new toys to play with

 


This bull moose found a good scratching tool

 


A collared fox returns to its den along a highway

 


A 1.5 year old grizzly bear cub

 


A new-born grizzly bear cub follows mom across a highway: multiple bears are killed annually by traffic.

 


A cow moose and her calf share their historic territory with us.

 


A grizzly bear sow guides her three newborns across the road.

 


A grizzly bear sow and her 1.5 year old cubs
 

Do you want to learn wildlife photography, what equipment and settings work best?

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