As a writer and photographer who makes a living portraying the pastoral scenes and citizens rural Ohio, I have at times wondered what the exotic life is like for the professionals who travel the world for an internationally renowned publication like National Geographic. Last week I had the chance to find out first hand.
With a group of college buddies, I journeyed to eastern Montana to see the work of the American Prairie Foundation. The organization is gathering funds and using the money to acquire ranchland in the sage-covered region north of the Missouri River. It is the homeland of the American bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorn antelope. The foundation hopes to use the ranches they buy and grazing leases associated with them to create a 1.5 million-acre refuge for prairie wildlife open to the public.
Their progress is featured in the October issue of Reader’s Digest. It will also be included in a National Geographic television show. NG has had a team documenting the area’s wildlife for the last year. Andy Mitchell heads up the effort and has logged 70 days of filming in the last 12 months. We spent most of a day with Andy and his two assistants and it was a pretty amazing session. Andy has photographed wildlife all around the globe. He’s videoed lions and bears and cobras and sharks and whales and monkeys among others. He’s been stung by venomous ants and scorpions. He’s been bitten by a lemur and rubbed against a king cobra. He’s one of those guys who gets a thrill out of “hanging around outside the shark cage while you wait for things to get hairy.”
The filming during our visit was far less dangerous -- unless you consider the potential for being infected by the plague a reason for concern. Andy had just rented a new camera the morning we arrived and was headed for a prairie dog town to put it to use. The camera had a roto-rooter capacity which enabled the operator to run it into the prairie dogs’ tunnels to photograph their underground activities. Initially the dogs just ran out the escape hatches at the other end of their tunnels and there wasn’t much to see. After a couple of tries the filmmakers found a tunnel with no outlet and got some footage of the rodent pushing rocks and dirt at the snake-like invader trying to force it out.
BISON WATCH: Travel companions lock their binoculars on the herd of 100 bison which roam American Prairie Foundation land.
The area where the filming was taking place is research ground for reintroduction of the black-footed ferret into Montana. A natural predator of the prairie dog, the weasel-like ferret has been on the endangered species list. Like the rodents it feeds on, the ferret is susceptible to the plague which wipes of whole towns of prairie dogs. The NG crew has some ferret scenes, but hopes their underground camera will get more.
In the early evening we traveled south the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri Breaks of the Missouri River. Andy changed cameras to shoot some high definition video of the elk rut taking place in the region. We parked along the road lined with trucks and cars of local folks who had come to watch the breeding action. As dusk fell a herd of more than 100 animals emerged from the woods. Bull elk are those magnificent antlered giants you see the ads for the Hartford Insurance Co. In the fall they gather in meadows to breed. The females are herded into harems by the bulls. The males make a high-pitched bugling cry that sounds kind of like the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” The females are mostly interested in grazing, but the males have something else in mind. Occasionally one of the girls will stray into another bull’s territory and the male will have to chase her back. This can lead to a challenge from another bull. Some serious pushing a shoving follows as the males lock antlers. Andy was kind enough to let me watch some of this through the lens of his camera.
While the constant bugling was quite loud, it was not nearly as entertaining as the play-by-play being offered from my pals. You can only imagine how a group of guys who were raised on John Madden commentary would describe a convention of breeding elk. Andy assured me the audio portion of the film would feature nature’s soundtrack instead of our bull.
The following day we trekked back to Bozeman for some great trout fishing in the Yellowstone River and a romantic stay at the historic Voss Bed and Breakfast. On behalf of my fellow travelers: John “Bugle Boy” Baer, Ken “The App Man” Hayes, Marty “Pink Hat” Davis, Tim “No Trout” Clark and the incredible James “Thunder Belly” Baer, I would like to thank our hosts Alison Fox and Meg Nicolo and guide Bryce Christiansen for a really cool visit.
To learn more about the American Prairie Foundation go to www.americanprairie.org/.