It is almost June on Swan Lake Flat, a vast expanse of sage and juniper at 7,300 feet in the northern end of Yellowstone National Park, and John Shier is crackling with energy. His knee jitters like a cold-turkey smoker’s, accompanied by a staccato of snapping bubble gum. The fiercest winter in more than a decade has come roaring back to the northern Rockies for Memorial Day weekend, erasing the high peaks and burying the tender shoots of young grass under drifting snow. The wind howls as we sit in Shier’s jacked-up 4×4 utility van in a pull-off along the park road, a hundred grand in digital-film equipment packed in the back. Shier scans the swirling emptiness with a pair of ultra-high-definition Leica binoculars, cursing under his breath. “Where did she go?” he asks. “Goddamn nothing out there.”
Shier is in Yellowstone for four weeks to film a segment for Untamed Americas, a series debuting this spring on the National Geographic Channel. He’s on a tight shooting schedule, and the weather is making Shier’s already difficult job nearly impossible. In recent days dozens of cars and RVs have slipped off the roads between here and Old Faithful, and a rock slide has cut off an immense corner of Yellowstone from the outside world. The snowpack is so deep that hundreds of bison have turned to park roads for their migration, backing up traffic for miles.
Shier is here to record, in high-def glory, a species interaction that has rarely been captured on film. Each spring Yellowstone’s grizzlies descend from their high den sites to dig up the caches of ground squirrels and eat fresh grass on the lower slopes. At the same time, herds of elk follow the green spring growth up the valleys from their winter range in Montana, the pregnant cow elk looking for a good place to birth their calves near their summer pasture. As has happened for thousands of years, bear and elk converge on Swan Lake Flat, and the newborn calves, unable to outrun the grizzlies — who can run up to 30 mph — become the bears’ main course. The elk hunt occurs only a couple of weeks each year and often in places out of sight of where Shier is filming. The bears aren’t hunting for the cameraman’s benefit, so a huge number of variables have to converge to get a shot. “You can see a bear one minute,” Shier says, “then it’ll walk behind a tree and disappear for hours.” Shier has 20 days for the shoot and can’t spare a single one of them. He sets himself an unrelenting pace: 5 am to 9 pm every day. If something happens, he plans to be there to film it.
With the rising popularity of Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and a host of National Geographic offerings, viewers have come to expect an ever-increasing degree of closeness to the violence and poignancy of wild animals’ lives, with little sense of the colossal amount of work that goes into capturing those images. “Very few people ever see a grizzly chase an elk, let alone catch one,” says Shier. “To be able to film that is asking quite a bit.”
The bear he hopes will be his main subject is a female grizzly nicknamed Quad Mom. She gained her name, and considerable fame among bear aficionados, by spending the summer of 2010 hunting the flat with four adorable cubs in tow, including a runt named the Nub that would sometimes ride on her back. The grizzly and her cubs have been spotted up here on the flats, but the snow is keeping the majority of the elk herd down in the meadows below the snow line. Shier hasn’t seen Quad Mom for two days and has been obsessively scanning the flat since sunrise, looking for a sign. “They’re out there hunting all day, relentlessly,” says Shier. “We have to have the same patience to get the shot.”
Shier is among a new generation of cinematographers who are elevating wildlife documentary far beyond the Disneyfied reels of the past or the sensationalist theatrics of many new shows. He takes inspiration from the dreamlike visions of art-house recluse Terrence Malick and the unnarrated abstractions of nature seen in films like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. He has filmed around the world, from Mongolia to Tasmania, from the Andes to the Canadian Rockies, but his most important work has been here in Yellowstone, the 3,472 square miles nicknamed the American Serengeti. Shier was a principal cinematographer for 2009’s Yellowstone, the BBC’s three-hour special on the park, and his best sequences reveal a vision of nature that is both intimate and majestic. A pack of wolves harry a bull elk in an icy creek. Bald eagles fend off a skulking coyote from a carcass. A red fox dives for mice in deep snow. On a scree slope, a mother grizzly battles a larger male that threatens her cubs. Time-lapse shots reveal storms boiling up in valleys, shadows gliding past Yellowstone’s striated peaks, steam skirting across its innumerable thermal features. It is hard to watch and not feel utterly awed that such a wilderness still exists, the caldera of a still-active supervolcano, teeming with extraordinary creatures.
Shier is a burly 33-year-old with close-cropped brown hair and bright blue eyes; his upturned nose and broad features give him a somewhat ursine appearance. Unlike his omnivorous subjects, though, Shier is a strict vegetarian. He grew up in Wisconsin and now lives with his wife, Sara, and two young daughters in nearby Livingston, Montana, an hour from Yellowstone. After a stint at a software company in Seattle, Shier got a master’s degree in natural-history filmmaking at Montana State. His first film, edited by Sara, was shot in Yellowstone over a period of three years with a camera borrowed from school. Unable to afford campground fees, he would leave the park each night and sleep in his car with his dog, wet and miserable. Each day he’d rise in the dark, make coffee, and stalk the grizzlies from the park roads until nightfall. The grueling routine taught him the near-obsessive persistence and superhuman patience required to successfully film wildlife. One astonishing shot of his, never before filmed, shows a brash young grizzly attempting to bring down a wounded bull elk. His filmmaking career was launched from that project, and a fortunate disaster derailed a brief foray into filming weddings: At his first and only gig, he drove away from the reception with the wedding tapes on the roof of his car, returning the next day to find them fluttering, unspooled, in a ditch.
Grizzlies are, he claims with all the eager sincerity of a young boy, his “favorite animals.” He sees them as ferocious survivors, a living connection to the boundless prehuman wilderness of the Pleistocene, when woolly mammoths, giant beavers, and saber-toothed cats shared their landscape. Grizzlies survived to the present with a combination of aggression and wits but now exist only at the mercy of our protectionist whims. “Grizzlies have been wiped out from 99 percent of their original range,” he says. He talks animatedly about a pre-American continent crawling with Ursus arctos horribilis from the Mississippi to the Pacific. “Imagine 30 grizzlies feeding on a whale carcass on Venice Beach,” he says. “Today the only grizzly in California is on the state flag.”
Shier’s assistant cameraman Dawson Dunning pulls up next to us in a beat-up green Jeep Cherokee with a cracked windshield. Dunning is 28, sporting a camo hat and a goatee, with a quiet drawl. He’s a fifth-generation Montanan, the son of a rodeo steer roper who still operates a 2,000-acre ranch. Dunning is an experienced hunter whose skills play well on a shoot. “He’s an amazing spotter,” Shier says, and he’ll often shoot second angles with a smaller camera. The weather appears to be clearing for the afternoon, and Shier decides we should scout the area where Quad Mom and her brood were last spotted. “Of course, ‘last known direction’ when talking about bears is completely useless,” says Dunning. But there are few other options.
Shier and Dunning divide their camera gear into packs. The tripod alone weighs 20 pounds. Shier shoots with a Red One, a cutting-edge digital-cinema camera designed by Jim Jannard, the billionaire founder of Oakley sunglasses. His lens, on loan from National Geographic, is a $50,000 Canon capable of fully framing a bear from 120 yards out and capturing a chase from as far away as a half-mile. We strap snowshoes to our packs and canisters of pepper spray to our belts. Shier chuckles as I carefully read the instruction label on my pepper spray, which contains a compound a thousand times hotter than a jalapeño that can stop a bear charge from 30 feet. “If you have to use your bear spray, it means Dawson and I have already used ours,” Shier says. I offer to just toss mine to him and curl up in a fetal position. Despite spending thousands of hours filming grizzlies, Shier has never had a dangerous interaction and never needed to use his spray. He’s extremely careful to maintain a safe distance; ideally the bear is unaware of his presence as he films. The killing of two tourists in grizzly attacks over the summer — the first such occurrences in Yellowstone in 25 years — underscores how cautious Shier must be as he works.
On a snow slope on the side of Terrace Mountain, Dunning spots several muddy sets of tracks. We pick our way through the flooded area, cursing and sinking in the muck to our knees. Soaked and muddy, we posthole up a snowfield and drop our packs in a copse of aspens on a hilltop. A flock of sandhill cranes flies from the sage and beats away, trumpeting. Shier is the first to spot Quad Mom and her two cubs, 300 yards off, three brown dots ambling along a line of snow. Shier says she had emerged from her den a few months earlier with three cubs, meaning one likely died over the winter. He thinks the other cub may have been killed by a rival male hoping to mate with its mother. We watch through the binoculars as she trots ahead of them, turning to wait as they race to catch up. She continues on with them and vanishes over a rise, swallowed up by a contour in the landscape, as if she knew we were watching her. Filming from here would be pointless, Shier says, and we could never keep up with the grizzlies over such varied terrain. “We’re just going to have to work the hell out of the roads,” Shier says to Dunning.
Paved, two-lane roads loop through some of the prime habitat of Yellowstone’s wildlife. This affords a filmmaker like Shier an extraordinary advantage: the ability to cruise the park’s roads, looking for an animal and the best vantage point from which to film it. With Dunning in a second vehicle, they can triangulate their search via cell phone, working the long switchbacks above the smoking thermal terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs that lead up past Swan Lake Flat. One afternoon Dunning spots the mother and her cubs high on the flanks of Bunsen Peak, tiny dots amid a swath of deadfall lodgepole pine left by the massive fires that swept through in 1988. Dunning peers into his spotting scope and thinks they’re on a kill, but from well over a mile away, not even Shier’s long lens can bring them into focus. By the next morning they’ve vanished again. “Clearly she’s a good hunter,” says Shier, with a mix of admiration and frustration. “But she’s so unpredictable.”
The only way Shier can counter the bear’s capricious nature is to be as single-minded and determined in his hunt as the grizzly is in hers. This relentlessness may be the source of Shier’s success as a filmmaker, and in Yellowstone he is hardly unusual. The park has long had a magnetic pull for obsessives, and its publicly accessible wilderness has given rise to a host of cults. WolfWatchers consists of an army of volunteers who have observed the park’s wolves daily since their reintroduction in 1995. One volunteer, Rick McIntyre, has logged more than 5,000 consecutive days monitoring Yellowstone’s wolf packs. Geyser gazers track the force and punctuality of Old Faithful’s every spurt via webcam. And then there are the bear lovers, perhaps none so committed as Shier’s friend Barbara Wehrfritz. Wehrfritz is in her early 50s, with graying hair and glasses, and has been coming to Yellowstone to photograph bears every spring and fall for 19 years. This doesn’t seem strange to anyone here; part of the attraction is to be in a community of people to whom you never have to explain your obsession. We find Wehrfritz one morning at 6 am, sitting in her car on the flats with binoculars, a spotting scope, and a legal pad, making notes about the grizzly and her cubs. An unofficial and unpaid member of Shier’s crew, she is an indispensable source of intel, a third set of eyes with an absolutely singular focus on bears.
Wehrfritz receives word that another grizzly is feeding along Obsidian Creek, a few miles to the south of us, and we drive down to look. That is when I encounter my first bear jam. We go around a bend and arrive at the tail end of a line of cars stretching hundreds of yards along the roadside. Shier orders me into the driver’s seat, throws open the cargo doors, and assembles his camera. He works calmly and swiftly, with an efficiency born of years of practice. Then he hoists the 70-pound rig over his shoulder and starts jogging down the road alongside the cars. The desire to document apex predators may be as old as the cave paintings of Lascaux, but the volume of people seeking an intimate connection with wildlife is overwhelming the park’s infrastructure. In summer, bear jams will sometimes stretch for miles, with people abandoning their cars in the roadway and sprinting to get a better view. Shier calls it a “democratized safari,” and even though the huge crowds make his job more difficult, he understands that it is a public good to permit this sort of access.
By the time I can pull over and make my way to Shier, there are more than a hundred tripods splayed along the roadside, all focused on a single grizzly casually nibbling grass in a meadow. A ranger in a highway vest marches up and down the line, yelling at gawking drivers in a futile effort to keep traffic flowing. There is something of a paparazzi vibe among the crowd. Whenever the bear glances up, the roar of motorized shutters sounds like machine-gun fire. The bear shakes its hump and turns back to munching grass, utterly indifferent to the commotion.
I find Shier off to one side of the jam. His lens has by far the longest reach of any of those present, so he can afford to hang back from the crowd. Monitoring focus and exposure on his viewing screen, he has the bear filling the frame from a hundred yards away. This isn’t the hunt footage he needs, but it will do for now. The shot of the grazing bear seen through Shier’s viewfinder is serene and beautiful, the crowd of humans documenting its every move cropped out. Shier understands the irony that some of the most intimate filmed sequences ever achieved in Yellowstone have been shot from a crowded roadside like this one: “If you panned out on any film scene from the Serengeti, you’d see dozens of Land Cruisers tearing across the landscape. This is no different.” As he sees it, in a world where we’ve set nature on museumlike display, it’s the only way to gather the images needed to tell a story.
There is a wide catalog of tricks used in the service of storytelling in nature films, and the fact that many are shot from a peanut gallery is the least of them. The snuffles, grunts, and roars are almost always added later, built from stock recordings or created in postproduction. Use of “filler animals” is common practice: While gathering the shots necessary to form a sequence, an editor may have to use several different animals to construct the narrative. The baby elk suckling at its mother may not be the one you see devoured a moment later. The deer that startles may not be reacting to the stalking wolf pack. But Shier makes no apologies for this, contending that it would be impossible to tell a coherent story otherwise. He sees it as a vast improvement from the bad old days of wildlife documentary, when the use of captive animals and staged situations was the norm.
Ethics today are stricter, but there is still a deep vein of sensationalism in the wildlife-filming industry. Shier would never make the kind of films with “just another host out grabbing stuff.” He wants to reveal the natural world as it really is, to shock the viewer into seeing the animals as if for the first time. While Shier accepts the need for the continuity and sound tricks used by all wildlife filmmakers, he is adamant that he will film only animals being animals. “We want natural behavior. If we’re impacting what the animal is doing, we’re not going to get what we want anyway. If we’re screwing with the animal too much, I’ll just walk away.”
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.”