Freedom to Move: Living Among the Greater Yellowstone Migrations

I love to think about the ever-evolving mixture of science, adventure, and conservation in the West. Old-school science is being combined with current-day media to reach the people that care—and who didn’t care. That’s my gig. I’m trained in wildlife biology and not in photography, but work as a photographer to tell wildlife and science stories. Over the years, I’ve worked with Nat Geo on stories in different places, such as frogs in the Tepui Mountains of South America, pumas in the High Andes, and Gobi bears in the Mongolian desert. But my primarily focus is with ungulate (hooved animals such as pronghorn or elk) migrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Most of the past seven years of my life has been spent living in the woods of western Wyoming.

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Pronghorns crossing a river on their migration in Wyoming; Photograph by Joe Riis

Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is 2.2million acres, our first national park, and a real gem. Furthermore, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is a dozen times that size—some 27 million acres of land and air. In a lot of ways, it’s the far-reaching winter ranges of migratory ungulates that define the outer edges of the GYE. The wildness of the core of YNP is dependent on the far-reaching ranch lands—it’s all one system and the migrations are the lifeblood.

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Mule Deer Migration Project, Western Wyoming, Red Desert to Hoback (RD2H) Migration 2012-2014; Photograph by Joe Riis

Each summer, thousands of elk, deer, and pronghorn move from the edges into the core of the system to feed and give birth. They also feed the predators like bears, wolves, and mountain lions. The cycle continues. And this migration cycle is what I try to show in photographs.

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The pronghorn migration; Photograph by Joe Riis

From a storytelling perspective, there are three primary migrations that I’ve focused on: the Path of the Pronghorn migration from Grand Teton National Park to southwest Wyoming; the mule deer migration from the Red Desert to Hoback; and the Cody elk migration on the Absaroka front. Thousands of animals on the move.

The Adventurists blog series “Freedom to Move” is sponsored by Toyota TRD Pro, which provided a vehicle for this adventure.