The Wolves of West Yellowstone
I’ve seen wild wolves in places like Alaska, Glacier National Park, and Yellowstone. Unfortunately, getting a good photograph, or what I would consider a ‘keeper’ is not an easy task. Every wolf I’ve seen has either been a speck in the viewfinder or a blur crossing the highway at dusk. I’m not a huge fan of photographing animals in captivity, but I also realize there are some animals that are virtually impossible to record in the wild (for most of us anyway).
New Year’s weekend my family and I visited the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana. Living in Montana I knew of the Discovery Center, but I never really had an opportunity to check it out.
I’m sorry I waited so long!
The goal during my visit was to get an intimate portrait of a wolf in a natural setting. Not only was I able to get the photos I wanted, I also learned a great deal about the animals living here. They all have unique stories that reveal why they are no longer able to succeed on their own in the wild. Coram is a grizzly bear that had to be removed because he had a tendency to go after easy food sources on porches and in garbage cans. Sam is a huge, 1000 lb. bear from Alaska whose mother disappeared when he was a cub. Nahani is a rough-legged hawk whose wing got broken after being hit by a car. The Center takes in animals from around the country, but a lot of the animals are actually from Montana and the Yellowstone area.
If you ever get the opportunity to visit, there are a few factors to consider. First, because West Yellowstone is known as the snowmobile capital of the world, the town is definitely active and has a lot going on. Even though I visited during the winter season, which might make one think it would be a quiet time of year, it was anything but quiet. However, there weren’t too many people inside the actual Discovery Center while we were there, which made it a perfect place to escape some of the activity of town. I have never been there in the summer, but am sure it’s a different story at the peak of the tourist season.
Another added bonus of visiting in the winter was the beauty of the snow. The morning we were there, we were greeted with a nice new blanket of snow. It made a wonderful backdrop for my images.
Make sure to give yourself enough time. This is not a place you want to be rushed. Before we arrived I figured we’d be there for a couple hours at most, but we ended up staying most of the day. It’s not that it is very big, but the unobstructed views of the habitats makes you feel more connected. It’s such a great environment to watch and photograph the animals.
Most of my time was spent at the wolf habitat, and a significant amount of that time I was by myself. There are several ranger or naturalist-led programs throughout the day which offer a great opportunity to learn a huge variety of new things. While these talks are amazing and well attended, and I highly recommend you take advantage of them, they also create an opportunity to be nearly alone in the wolf habitat. You can shoot to your heart’s content and even spend a little time just enjoying your time alone with these majestic animals.
Another thing you want to consider when visiting, is the gear you bring with you. I kept it simple and just carried my Canon 7D Mark II with my Canon 100-400mm f4.5/5.6 IS II USM lens. Even though you can get relatively close to the animals here, a telephoto lens is a must. The great majority of my shots were taken at 400mm. The shooting itself is relatively simple. As with any wildlife photography, you want to shoot with a shallow depth of field. I shot with a wide open aperture the entire time, which is 5.6 on that particular lens at 400mm. I had good light all day so I set my ISO at 400 and was able to shoot around 1/1500th of a second.
The wolves are separated into three packs. One of the packs, The Granite Pack, occupies the main viewing area. There are two wolves in this pack, Adara the female and Summit the male. These were the only wolves that were easily photographed when I was there. Since the viewing area is wide open, there was plenty of room for me to roam around and get the shots I wanted. I was very close to the wolves, but I would still recommend using a longer focal length to get tight, isolating shots. This area only got better as the day went on due to clouds moving in and bringing a nice snow flurry with them. The sun was still penetrating the clouds so there was this incredible soft backlight, which made the snowflakes glisten as they fell. I was in photographer heaven!
If you are interested in photographing the grizzly bears, there is a raised viewing platform that gives you a better vantage point than the normal viewing area. It is back a bit further so having that longer focal length here is very important.
So, if you are like me and want to photograph some of those hard-to-find animals that call the Rocky Mountains home, I would highly recommend visiting the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. It’s a nice alternative to shooting at a zoo or even a high-priced game farm. Additionally, the price of admission is good for two days! Keep in mind some of the exhibits are seasonal, but the lack of people and the beauty of the snow make a winter trip well worth it!