Winter in Yellowstone national park is both a test of endurance and an expression of primal beauty. The park experiences heavy snowfall during this season, and daytime temps are rarely above freezing. Roads close, rivers and lakes freeze, and storms blanket the area. This makes things especially difficult for people, as well as most other mammals of the park—home to more wild animals than almost anywhere else in the U.S. But for the wolf, this environment of extremes becomes the ultimate playground.
There is no better time to get a glimpse of the Rocky Mountain’s most elusive major predator. Their dark coats grow thicker and darker, their wide paws allow them to walk atop the snow pack in pursuit of their more cumbersome prey, who begin roaming in search of their own sustenance.
Though Yellowstone’s impressive elk herds will be on the move, eventually migrating outside of the park for most of the winter, they’ll comprise approximately 85% of winter wolf kills and are also essential food for bears, mountain lions, and others. Bison, on the other hand, will be migrating to lower ground in the north area of Yellowstone, where the snow and temperatures are milder and it's easier to feed on the grass under the snow.
With all this wildlife behavior on full display, winter is truly when Yellowstone is at its best, especially for lovers of the outdoors. Seeing these iconic animals of the American West can be a life-changing experience. That’s why we asked photographer Jeff Brenner to give us all a front row seat to the action, commissioning him in December 2020 to capture these indelible portraits of the park’s landscapes and inhabitants.
Brenner has spent the last five years pursuing his photographic passions, capturing some of the most exciting images of animals that we’ve seen to date. Here, he discusses what pushed him to ditch his day job, shares some of his most notable experiences from behind the viewfinder, as well as a few tricks of the trade he’s picked up along the way.
Jacques Marie Mage: What first inspired you to pick up a camera?
Jeff Brenner: In high school, I took a photo class as an elective and every single day my teacher, Mr. Webb, walked in with a huge smile on his face. His genuine passion was to teach his students the art of photography and he wanted to inspire us to fall in love with it as well. I remember thinking, “I want to be as fulfilled in my future career as Mr. Webb.” Not only did he inspire me to pick up a camera, but modeled what it looked like to make a living doing something that you’re passionate about.
JMM: Which was the first nonhuman animal you ever photographed? Where and under what circumstances?
J.B.: My first “real” nonhuman photograph I took was of a mule deer buck in Yosemite National Park. I was crouched in a meadow photographing him from a distance when my camera peaked his interest. He walked up to me and stood there looking into my lens. At that time, I didn’t realize the wildlife distance rules so rather backing away, I remained crouched and aimed the camera upward, toward his face. The rush of adrenaline I received from being so close to a wild animal was essentially life-changing. Not only was it a thrill, but the feedback I received from the image made me realize how impactful wildlife photography could be.
JMM: How many national parks would you say you have you visited? Which was your favorite to photograph and why?
J.B.: Truthfully, I’m not sure how many national parks I’ve visited at this point. I grew up going on road trips with my family, and we would drive across the US and camp in our little pop-up trailer. We visited all kinds of places, and while I don’t remember every park we visited, it certainly ignited the love I have for adventure in my adult years. Hands down, my favorite park to photograph is Yellowstone with Grand Teton NP as a close second. I have many places on my photography bucket list, but my wife and I find ourselves going back to Montana and Wyoming time and time again because of the vast wildlife all throughout the parks.
JMM: What would you say is the key to capturing a good animal photograph?
J.B.: It’s hard to a single key to capture a successful wildlife image, but the first thought should always be safety. Too many people put themselves and the animal at risk when capturing a photo. Aside from that, when photographing animals, the goal should be to figure out how you can take the feeling you had in the moment and implement it into the image. People want to experience what it was like for the photographer as he/she watched the event unfold.
JMM: Describe your scariest encounter with an animal while shooting (pictures) in the wild.
J.B.: After years of photographing wildlife, I could tell these stories for hours! However, I’d have to say the scariest encounter was when I was photographing a female grizzly with her two cubs in Yellowstone. I saw them from my truck while driving down a back road, so I stopped to get out and photograph them. I was about 50 yards from my truck and no one was out there, so I wanted to be as invisible as possible. As I’m shooting, I notice a guy had parked behind my truck and started walking toward the grizzly and her cubs. I thought he was going to stand beside me, but he just kept walking toward them to get closer photos on his cell phone. He wasn’t being cautious or quiet, so as he approached them, the cubs got startled and stood up on their back legs. At that point, the grizzly mom turns and stares right at him. He got scared and started sprinting back to his car, which is the worst thing you can do as it triggers the predator verses prey instinct. As he ran past me, I became the closest person to the family of grizzlies. Even though I was far away, I just stood there hoping she wasn’t going to charge. Thankfully she ended up leaving the area with no act of aggression. However in that moment, I came to the conclusion that even though I have experience in being safe around predatory animals and wildlife in general, a reckless person can quickly create a potentially deadly scenario for themselves and the people around them.
JMM: Describe your favorite encounter with wolves.
J.B.: Last summer, I was in Lamar Valley (in Yellowstone) looking for wolves. I saw a cow elk standing on a ridge looking intently down the hill about 300 yards away. I set up my tripod and camera, grabbed my binoculars, and began scanning the area where to elk was looking. Just down the hill, I saw a black wolf eating a carcass. I had found out that the wolf was eating the calf of the cow elk that was up on the ridge. She had been watching the wolf eat her calf for two hours, but couldn’t do anything but stare from a distance. This was actually incredibly sad to observe, and was not something I took joy in. I wouldn’t say this was my “favorite” encounter, but by far the most impactful. It demonstrated the unbiased nature of Yellowstone. It can be brutal to watch, but that elk calf provided a much-needed meal for the wolf.
JMM: Can you tell us something special about Yellowstone that most people don't know?
J.B.: In the 1920’s, the wolves in Yellowstone had been hunted to extinction. Over the course of 70 years, the ecosystem had become unbalanced. The elk population skyrocketed, which allowed them to graze unchecked and destroy much of the landscape. In 1995, grey wolves from Canada were reintroduced into the park. Since then, the natural order balanced out once again and the Yellowstone wolf population has stabilized with an average of 100 wolves roaming the park.
JMM: Has there ever been a scene that you conscientiously decided to watch rather than photograph?
J.B.: As a photographer, this is something that I often battle with. For me, the purpose of taking photos is to serve as a tangible memory for myself, but it’s also a way for me to share these experiences with those that can’t see them in person. Still, once I get my shots, I always allow time to set down the camera and be in that moment. This is something I do especially when I photograph landscapes. While seasons and weather change, I know that the landscape will be there for photo opportunities in the future. These are the scenes that I will often just sit there and keep my camera holstered. In this industry, there’s a problem if a photographer solely experiences the wild through their viewfinder.
JMM: If you could travel through time, would you go into the past or the future? Why?
J.B.: I have no desire to view the future. As a society, we are already so reliant on technology and living our lives through our devices. Even in photography, most artists don’t know how to shoot film. We have been spoiled with new technology doing everything for us. For that reason, I have always wished I could go back to the late 1880’s. The West was untouched, as was most of our tourist hotspots today. I’d love to go back and see what things looked like when it was normal for people to live off the land.
JMM: What is your longest standing obsession?
J.B.: My longest standing obsession (which many people don’t know) is playing the piano and listening to classical music. I have played almost everyday since I was eight years old and am in love with the artistry of classical music. When I edit my photos, I either listen to folk or classical piano.
JMM: Sunrises or sunsets?
J.B.: Both sunrise and sunsets have their benefits. I love waking up for sunrise and seeing snow-covered mountains when everyone else is asleep. In terms of wildlife photography, some of my favorite compositions have been taken at sunset with the golden light filling the landscape. Because I genuinely don’t have a favorite, I will always be out shooting and exploring when the sun comes up to when it goes down.
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