Camera traps in the Glacier ecosystem and Grand Teton National Park are capturing unique images of park wildlife never seen before. Meet Joe Riis, one of a new breed of photographers taking pictures without lifting a finger.
By Scott Kirkwood
By now, you’d think just about everything in a national park has been photographed. But you’d be wrong. Joe Riis, 25, is one of a new generation of photographers combining wildlife biology with photography to capture images that no one has ever seen before. Riis puts his cameras in places where grizzlies, mountain goats, and wolverines are known to frequent—then he walks away and allows technology to trigger the shutter. One of the youngest members of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), Riis has photographed Glacier’s wildlife in the Flathead River Valley to fend off potential oil and gas operations on the fringe of the national park, and he’s captured never-before-seen images of Grand Teton’s pronghorn antelope to illustrate threats to their tenuous migration corridor. As part of that project, he served as a biologist-in-residence at the Murie Center, living in a log cabin and offering free presentations to park visitors for nearly a year. Riis spoke with National Parks Editor in Chief Scott Kirkwood a few weeks ago.
Q: First off, what is a camera trap—how does it work?
A: In simple terms, a camera trap is just a normal camera attached to an infrared beam—when the beam is broken the animal basically takes its own picture. The advantage of a camera trap is that it allows you to [get close enough to] show a big animal and a big landscape, which is almost impossible to do with most wildlife unless they’re tame.
Q: Can you explain how the infrared technology works?
A: There’s an infrared beam sent between two little plastic boxes, and one of the boxes is connected to the motor-drive terminal of the camera: I can set the camera to take one picture every second for five seconds, or 10 pictures in a second-and-a-half or whatever I want. I can also adjust the sensitivity so that if there’s a blade of grass waving in front of the beam it won’t go off, but if an animal walks by, it will.
Q: What new information do camera traps provide?
A: Camera traps are a new tool for field science, because they can show information that wasn’t previously possible, because if a researcher is seeing it, then the animal is probably behaving differently because of the human presence. Camera traps also show the world from the animal’s perspective. They show what the animal does when humans are not present and influencing them. The data captured by the camera also give researchers exact date and time information, movement patterns, size and structure of herd, and other critical information.
Q: How do you decide where to place your cameras for the best results?
A: The best thing to do is watch an animal go somewhere, put the camera in the same spot, and hope the animal comes back. On the pronghorn-migration project, I was looking for the trails that the pronghorn were using regularly, so I’d watch a group walk along the trail, and put a camera out, then another group would pass by and they’d walk through the camera’s field of view. Ungulates like deer, elk, and pronghorn will stay on a trail whenever possible, which makes it a little easier.
But some species—especially predators—have such huge home ranges, they don’t necessarily follow the same path. In the Flathead work last year, I was trying to photograph grizzly bears and wolverines, so I looked for landscape funnels and tried to figure out the easiest place for an animal to walk, because that’s usually the path they’ll take. I was working up on the Continental Divide, and there were two mountain passes close to each other, which fed into these huge drainages. The animals have to use those passes to move around, so I found an old streambed that was dried up at the time—an easy place for a bear, bighorn sheep or deer to walk—and that’s where I put the camera. I ended up getting several deer, some marmots, a grizzly and two cubs, a mountain goat, and a bighorn sheep ram.
Q: What drew you to working with camera traps?
A: I was doing work on the endangered interior least tern in South Dakota, down on the Missouri National Recreational River, and I knew I needed to show the landscape, because the birds live on sand bars. Then with the pronghorn project that I started a couple of years ago, I knew there was no other way to do it—I needed to show people what migration looks like, and [to show the animal up-close] and the landscape as well, you need to use a wide-angle lens and you have to be really close to the animal, which means using a camera trap. It takes a long time to do it well because you have to predict where the animals are going to go, and for pronghorn it means you’ve got to spend a lot of time in the field. But if you put in the time, it pays off. I’m always surprised when I go and check my cameras—I’ll leave for a week at a time and when I show up and check the pictures, I can never believe all the things that were happening when I was gone.
Q: Are there any challenges posed by severe weather, battery life, or other issues?
A: Batteries aren’t really an issue with the newer digital cameras, but I sometimes have to worry about the batteries on the flash, if I’m using one. And my cameras are usually in places where people aren’t necessarily walking by or seeing them, so I’m not too worried about theft. One of my cameras was practically eaten by a black bear, which is a bummer, but after 15 months of field work, losing one camera is pretty good. More than anything I worry about rain—the camera will die if it gets completely drenched in a downpour. I usually put a plastic Ziploc bag on the body and lock it down with rubber bands and then put a camouflage cover over it; I’d use a specialized sealed container, but those are custom-made pieces that would cost $4,000-5,000 for a full camera-trap setup, and that’s a fortune that I just don’t have right now.
Q: It seems like we’re suddenly seeing more images from camera traps. Is the technology relatively new?
A: Photographers have been using them for a long time, but they’ve become more popular in recent years. In the 1990s, Nick Nichols started using them in his work for National Geographic and now with digital technology it’s so much easier, because you can put an 8-gigabyte memory card in your camera and take hundreds of images, rather than getting just 36 exposures from a single roll of film. You can take test images in the field to see what the lighting conditions are like immediately, and the batteries last a long time, but the main difference is the ability to take so many pictures.
Q: Like many wildlife photographers, you have a background in biology—how does that help?
A: I went to the University of Wyoming and got degrees in wildlife biology and environment and natural resources, and I worked a little bit as a biologist in the summers, then when I graduated in 2008, I started working full-time as a photographer. When I was younger, I worked as a biologist tech conducting wildlife population surveys in central and South Dakota, and I grew up hunting, and this work is obviously very similar to hunting—but rather than trying to get 50 yards away and shoot the animals, I’m trying to get two or three yards away and get a picture. And all of that experience definitely helps me out.
Q: Talk about the details of the projects you’re working on.
A: One of my biggest projects is the Grand Teton pronghorn migration, the movement of 300 to 400 pronghorn that spend every summer in the park, then migrate to the east and then south into the Upper Green River Basin every fall, because the snow gets too deep in Grand Teton to stay the winter, making it impossible for them to eat sagebrush and other grasses. It’s the second-longest migration in the Western hemisphere, after the caribou in Alaska and Canada. It’s a project I started right when I graduated from school, because it was close to home and I thought I could help preserve the migration corridor, and there were no photographs of it, because no one had put the time in.
You can’t just show and up photograph a migration—it happens really quickly, but it’s all unfolding over the course of a year, so there’s a lot of hanging out, waiting, not seeing anything, then all of a sudden for half an hour there is this pulse of life moving over the landscape, and I’ve spent my time photographing those small little moments.
The entire migration route is about 150 miles. The northern end is the park and a protected corridor, but the southern half is a mixture of private and federal land, which includes some ranches and all kinds of fencing, housing developments, roads with traffic… but the main thing is the fencing. Pronghorn don’t usually go over fences, they go under them, and they need about 16 inches to slide underneath. People who care about the migration are coming together to retrofit their fences, [remove the barbed wire, raise the clearance,] and make them wildlife friendly, which is great. (Learn more about NPCA’s similar work around Yellowstone.)
Q: What’s next for you?
A: My next big personal project is focused on one of the mallard duck migrations in North America, which is pretty amazing. There are several migration routes, but I’ll be staying in the Central Flyway, up in Northwest Territories in Canada at their summering grounds, then down in the Gulf of Mexico for their wintering grounds, in Louisiana and Texas. There are some key stopover points in South Dakota and North Dakota in the prairie pothole regions, where millions of ducks just drop out of the sky to eat and recuperate for a few days, then leave again. So I’ll be at home in the Dakotas starting that project, which will probably take two or three years and include a lot of camera-trap work. It’s something that’s never been done before, capturing close-up images of ducks landing on water, so I’m pretty excited to get started on it.