Freedom to Move: Unplanned Migration

Seven years and three animal migrations later, here I am, still in western Wyoming focusing my life around photographing animals that migrate. I sometimes call myself a National Geographic magazine contributing photographer, but I need to pinch myself because it all was a far-fetched dream that became real.

I grew up in rural South Dakota, then moved to Laramie from 2003 to 2008 to go to college at the University of Wyoming. I didn’t know what else to do. As a flatlander from the plains, I wanted to live in the mountains and climb more, snowboard more, raft more, and walk around in the woods more. All things I couldn’t do where I grew up.

After college in 2008, with not much of a plan and a lot of help from my longtime friend Emilene Ostlind, I decided to move into my pickup and photograph the Grand Teton pronghorn migration, a migration that hadn’t been photographed. I applied for and received a National Geographic Young Explorers grant for the project. I was set, two years of fieldwork with one objective: make intimate pictures of pronghorn on the move.

And, I’m still doing it. Last year, I was on National Geographic magazine assignment to photograph pronghorn migration for the NGM Greater Yellowstone issue coming out in May 2016 to celebrate the national parks centennial, and right now I’m on the path of the elk migration in the Absaroka Mountains on the east side of Yellowstone. My elk work has principal support from the National Geographic Expeditions Council. These movements of animals have given me focus in my photography, and formed my way of life. I’m here in Wyoming when the migrations are happening, April through July and October. Driving around, moving and checking camera traps, on horseback or backpacking, dreaming about a long line of pronghorn, or a high mountain pass with a huge herd of elk punching over the top. I guess it’s what I do.

This is the first dispatch of several that I will be posting over the coming weeks, highlighting my work as a wildlife photojournalist focused on Greater Yellowstone migrations. My filmmaker friends Andy Maser and Hayden Peters recently joined me in the field to help bring my story forward.

THE TEAM

Joe Riis is a wildlife photojournalist and National Geographic contributing photographer. He established himself as a wildlife photojournalist during his pioneering work on the Grand Teton pronghorn migration, photographing the migration for the first time and campaigning for six wildlife highway over- and underpasses, which were built in 2012. Riis received a National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2008, an Emmy Award in 2011, the Stanford University Knight-Riser Award for western environmental journalism in 2012, the prestigious Camp Monaco Prize from Prince Albert II in 2013, and consecutive National Geographic Expedition Council grants in 2014/15. He is most proud of his work documenting the Greater Yellowstone animal migrations and raising awareness for their long-term conservation in a changing world. In addition to his work on migrations, Joe has worked with National Geographic on four continents on wildlife conservation stories. Joe lives in rural South Dakota for two months each year when he takes a break from the field. His hobbies include wood working, river rafting, and tending to his small apple orchard. “The wild animals that I photograph—they are the inspiration. Plain and simple, we should be honored to share this Earth with them, and they need a voice in our human culture.”

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Andy Maser is a two-time Emmy Award winning director and director of photography with 15 years of experience in commercial, broadcast, documentary, non-profit and feature film production. Andy is a Patagonia Environmental Grant recipient, a National Geographic Young Explorer grantee, and an Affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Hayden Peters films television, documentary films, and commercials for National Geographic, PBS, and top advertising agencies and brands. He blends a strong technical ability with an artistic eye and personal nature to capture any story in a beautiful and engaging way—whether it’s happening underwater, halfway around the world, or in his own backyard. Learn Hayden’s own story in the short film The Coast.

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

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