grizzlies, yellowstone, documentary
Credit: Adam Jones / Getty Images

One afternoon, as we cruise the park road just east of Mammoth, Dunning spots a cinnamon-colored black bear in a field of sage just below the road. With the grizzlies so hard to track, a black bear (more numerous, less ferocious) will do just fine. Shier screeches to a halt and sets up his camera on a bluff overlooking the scene, an area no bigger than a soccer pitch. A pair of elk cows stand on alert, noses high, and we watch as the black bear sniffs its way in a zigzag through the sage. "There's a calf bedded down in there; she's smelling for it," whispers Dunning. The elk inch closer to the bear and, in moments of bravery, try to bluff it away with a clatter of hooves. The bear feints but circles back and then springs at the elk. Shier looks into his viewfinder, following the action with a smooth arc of the camera, turning the focusing ring by hand. For more than an hour this dance continues, but the bear is absolutely persistent, scanning the sage with a snout seven times as sensitive as a bloodhound's. Suddenly it lunges into a deadfall, and a terrified bleat echoes off the hillsides. The mother elk bugles desperately. The bear has found the hidden calf and drags it by the neck into the brush. The screams go on for a long while, and Shier looks away from the monitor. "I really can't watch this part," he says. Even though this is exactly what he's come to film, he's shaken by the violence, saddened that the calf lived only a few days and died in pain and terror. I look into the monitor at a tight crop of the bear devouring the squirming calf. "They don't show this part on TV, obviously," he says.

When Shier reviews the footage of the hunt, his perfectionist side comes through. He's furious with himself that at the moment of the kill, he panned the shot straight across a power line, a fuzzy distraction. There are a million things that can go wrong to ruin any shot, and Shier is trying to balance all of them at once. Batteries die, memory cards fill up, the tiniest shift of the tripod will shake the telephoto like an earthquake. Despite the inevitable technical problems, digital tech­nology has opened up a world of possibilities for filming wildlife. Still, Shier's high-tech fantasies go beyond what's currently available: aerial drones. He imagines mounting a camera on a radio-controlled device called an Octocopter, hovering silently above a wolf pack as it makes a kill. Or an infrared camera to spot an animal's heat signature through the canopy — no more sitting in hides for days on end, as Shier has done while filming mountain lions. I ask him what uncaptured moment he would most like to film, and he doesn't miss a beat. "Siberian tiger and brown bear, fighting over a kill," he says. "Their ranges overlap, so it could happen."

The cinnamon bear proves to be an efficient hunter, and the following afternoon we spot her again, sniffing along a ridgeline above Mammoth. It is snowing, and Dunning and I fan out along the base of the hill, trying to keep an eye on her. Shier sets up his tripod across a dirt access road, near some park outbuildings. Barb Wehrfritz pulls up by him and scans the hillside while reciting the latest news from Swan Lake Flat. The snow is flying, and suddenly there is a scream in the trees above us. I look up and watch an elk calf sprinting down the hillside, the cinnamon bear running full-out behind it. I race back around to Shier just in time to see the bear sliding to a stop 10 yards from his lens, holding the crying calf in its jaws. The bear glances at us and drags the calf away into the underbrush behind a park building. Shier is totally concentrated on his viewfinder, his hand calmly pulling the focus ring to stay tight on the bear. Wehr­fritz jumps up and down, shouting and clapping. "She got it! She got it!"
A crowd gathers, and a bear management technician named Lynne Clarke pulls up in a white pickup. Together, we peer into Shier's monitor as he replays the clip in slow motion. It couldn't be more perfectly framed, the chase going headlong toward the camera as if filmed from the end zone at the Super Bowl. The running calf stumbles, and the bear tackles it, rolling in a snarling heap to the bottom of the hill. "You got the money shot!" exclaims Clarke. The calf is still screaming when a tourist walks up to Clarke in distress. "What are you going to do about it?" she asks. Clarke does a double take. "Uh, nothing," she replies. "It's a bear exhibiting bear behavior." Shier shakes his head. "What does she want them to do?" he asks. "Scare off the bear and give the calf CPR? The park would be full of elk with prosthetics."

As the bear devours the squirming calf behind a tree, bear management sets out highway cones and barricades to keep the crowd away, stenciled with the word events. It seems odd that this life-and-death drama is occurring a hundred yards from a gift shop that sells plush stuffed bears for children to cuddle. Despite his perfectionist impulse and self-criticism, Shier admits that his shot may be one of the best chases ever filmed in Yellowstone. "Under the best conditions," he explains, "it takes extraordinary patience to document a specific behavior as rare as elk calf predation. I've probably put in 100 days of trying to get grizzly bears hunting elk calves, and I've never got anything like what I got in the past two days."

Still, the work is never complete, just as the natural world never reveals all its mysteries. "I've gone on shoots where I figured there was a 10 percent chance that things were going to work," says Shier. But if you don't try, it'll never work. So Shier will keep trying for the great grizzly chase. The never-ending quest for the perfect shot is what drags him up each day at 4:30 am, making coffee by headlamp, hoping each time that something amazing might happen in front of his lens that day.

On my last day on the shoot, Shier and I pull into our campground below Mammoth and see an extraordinary sight. In a tiny patch of sage 10 feet from the roadside, a cow elk is standing lathered in sweat, her sides heaving, a nose and two tiny hooves poking out of her hindquarters. She bellows with birth pains, lies down, and then struggles up again. Shier assembles his camera quickly and stands on a picnic table, focusing on the cow in her pocket of sage. He frames the shot to crop out the traffic passing by and the stop sign behind her. He ignores the growing crowd, his vision isolated on a tiny act in the great theater of birth and death that plays out every day in Yellowstone. The cow elk strains and shudders, and then finally collapses on her side as the calf slides out onto the dusty ground. The mother licks the calf clean, consuming the amniotic sac and severing the umbilical cord with her teeth. She licks the calf until it is nearly scentless to help it stay hidden until it can run. We all stand in hushed wonder as the fuzzy, speckled creature at last totters on its spindly legs and takes its first steps to its mother. Shier squints into his viewfinder and whispers to no one in particular: "Beautiful."