By: Emily Stifler Wolfe
Near the top of the whitebark pine tree, the black bear sow reached for a pine cone with her open mouth. Grabbing it, she dropped it to the ground to eat later. Nearby, her cubs picked at the cones, learning to harvest the high-fat, high-protein nuts so important for survival.
This wouldn’t be an uncommon occurrence in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. Except it wasn’t in the backcountry. The tree was next to a guardrail, and 20 feet below the sow, people watched, standing on Dunraven Pass Road, a high point on Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road. Without a ranger present, the crowd continued growing.
“It’s unusual for a mama bear to put her cubs so close to the road and stay when so many people approach so close,” said Big Sky-based wildlife photographer Patty Bauchman, who came upon the scene one fall day in 2016. Bauchman was horrified, but didn’t yet understand why the bears were willing to come so close to the road.
“Photography led me to find out more,” she said.
What she learned was that whitebark pine are a “keystone species,” meaning many animals and environmental functions depend on them and that the trees have been devastated by mountain pine beetles, blister rust, and climate change, and that mama bear was desperate for the whitebark’s fat-rich nuts.
Previously owner and operator of horse farms in North Carolina and Las Vegas, Bauchman has visited Big Sky since 1981, introduced to the area by her husband, John, whose father’s business installed the first power lines to the resort. When they retired here in 2010, Bauchman dove into photography.
Part of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Bauchman has contributed images to conservation groups and now has work hanging in the Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport.
“When you get into wildlife photography, you can’t help but care about their environment,” Bauchman said. “I want to use my images to build awareness and help effect positive change.”
Q&A WITH PATTY BAUCHMAN
Tell me the story of that gorgeous fox image.
The fox I love, because it was in Big Sky. I was watching it hunt in an empty lot, and it wasn’t paying any attention to me, because I was in my car. I refer to it as my car blind. But then somebody else drove by and the fox stopped for that moment and looked my way. Foxes are quite prevalent here. A lot of people enjoy having them around, and some may have fed them. Feeding wildlife is illegal in Montana, and it’s a big issue in Big Sky, especially bears.
Why is that a problem?
Fish, Wildlife & Parks will sometimes relocate a black bear that has been captured in a neighborhood, and relocate it to more remote locations. But once a bear is habituated, they’ll euthanize it. This summer, we had multiple bears that got into unsecured trash cans so many times that when the neighborhood called to report it, they were euthanized instead of being relocated.
But aren’t all trash cans bear-proof in Big Sky now?
Many, but not all. Often, it’s [people] who may not understand. They’ll have scads of garbage, and the trash can lid won’t close, and that’s just an invitation to bears.
Pikas are one of my favorite animals. Where did you take that photo?
That was in the northern tier of Yellowstone. Pikas are another very important critter in terms of climate change. They’re highly affected by warming temperatures, and since they already live at higher elevation, they have nowhere to go for relief. They’re like a canary in the coal mine.
And the pine marten photo?
A group of youngsters was having a ball jumping on each other and running around, snow flying. They’re pretty rare to see, so that was really fun to see. It was in Yellowstone, and it’s the only one I’ve seen other than in my backyard.
Why wildlife photography?
I love living so close to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, and then finding wildlife so prevalent in Big Sky, like the herds of elk in our neighborhood. I’ll be headed to Yellowstone before it’s even light, and as soon as I turn on Lone Peak Trail, boom. I brake because there’s a big bull elk in the road. I think, ‘huh I’m going to Yellowstone to photograph the elk rut, and here it is right down the street.’
Have you seen any accidents?
The elk often cross Lone Peak Trail on the curves above Lone Mountain Ranch and below Antler Ridge. I see them hit there often. I wish there could be an underpass or overpass like they have in Canada.
How does this work influence and inspire you?
It’s fun to connect with other like minded photographers and see what they do, conservation-wise. I always want to do more, see more, experience more, and help more.
Find more of Patty Bauchman’s work at patriciabauchmanphotography.com and on instagram @pbauchmanphotography. Read more about the Forever Project and the photographers involved in the Swift Current 6 chairlift chairbacks here.