Reflecting on the Absaroka TIM, November 29

by Dave Showalter

A blustery November wind sends a chill through North Fork Canyon, which is of no concern to mating bighorn sheep. I visited the sheep for several days in a row to give our Tripods In The Mud story a heartbeat, thinking occasionally about the future of bighorns and their rightful place as a Rocky Mountain icon. Mostly, I was just trying to make compelling images of a majestic creature that migrates from Yellowstone National Park to grassy winter range in North Fork Canyon. It’s natural to focus on the big rams with their full curl that wraps under the eye. That’s what I was doing when this juvenile approached me and looked straight into my lens, captivating me with his translucent eyes. The moment lasted for a burst of images, just a few seconds.

Bighorn sheep have been reduced to less than 10% of their historic population and are among the species that Greater Yellowstone Coalition advocates for. They are vulnerable to disease from domestic sheep; and because bighorns travel long distances, their range frequently overlaps. Bighorn sheep need freedom to roam between winter and summer range, a classic case for protecting critical lands outside of national parks. They are both emblematic of the Rocky Mountain Region and the struggle to protect both our natural and Western heritage.

This Tripods In The Mud project began when GYC’s northwest Wyoming director Barbara Cozzens emailed me in the summer. Barb had an outside the box idea to use images and advocacy to bring attention to the Absaroka-Beartooth Front (A-B) while land management agencies are establishing a 20-year plan for BLM and Shoshone National Forest lands east of Yellowstone. GYC’s plan protects the A-B Front and steers energy development to places that are appropriate for oil and gas development – conserving lands that are critical for wildlife and human recreation. With GYC and ILCP’s support (and Barb’s enthusiasm and passion), we crafted a plan for the Tripods In The Mud project; by definition a way to address an urgent conservation need – in this case a 20-year land management plan with an imminent threat of development in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Most people don’t know the Absaroka-Beartooth Front; which is understandable considering the notoriety of YNP. What we all need to better understand is that our national parks aren’t big enough to be sustainable, that wildlife need to move freely, and people need places to recreate, to hunt, fish, birdwatch, hike, bike, backpack – to find peace in wild places. These are our public lands and every American citizen is a stakeholder. Our story is about all of those things and much more.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the A-B Front is the most important, fully-functioning ecosystem outside of a national park in America. It’s not perfect, but all of the animals that belong here are here; migrations are intact, and people have unlimited access to the wildest places in the lower 48. I learned that you can hike on any trail and have it to yourself, with the added bonus of being second or third in the food chain. I hiked through, drove around, flew over, rode horseback, photographed a rodeo, mountain biked, and hiked some more; solo and with like-minded companions. And I reflected a lot, thinking about what matters most. In Pavillion and Clark our Western neighbors would simply like to have clean air and water, both fouled by industrial drilling for gas. Elsewhere, we make room for grizzlies, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, migrations of mule deer, elk, and pronghorn – a web of life above timberline, in sub-alpine forest, riverine riparian habitat, and mixed sagebrush grassland. It’s easy to get sidetracked and talk about a single species that some folks love and others hate; or caught up in ideology about how to use the land or bend it to our will. GYC has a great plan that offers a sustainable future for the A-B Front, it’s wild residents, folks who make their living off the land, and those of us who visit for a little while. It’s Yellowstone without the crowds and outside of the imaginary lines, the Western interface. If we care about the West and a sustainable future, the Absaroka-Beartooth Front deserves protection.

The photography expeditions are completed and a lot of heavy lifting is needed to conserve the A-B. Stay tuned to learn how you can support protection for the A-B, news about a traveling photo exhibit, social media outreach, and a multi-media piece. It’s a privilege to work with two world-class organizations in the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the International League of Conservation Photographers and I’m grateful for the opportunity. And many thanks to GYC supporters and friends in Cody country for your support and friendship. It’s been a wonderful journey so far!