Wildlife photographer Tom Murphy is well known for documenting the beauty and wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. In these interview excerpts, he shares photos and experiences from decades of hiking, camping and skiing across Yellowstone, a place he refers to as "one of the finest wild land ecosystems in the world."
Yellowstone's thermal feature provide rare opportunities for wildlife to get relief from the stress of severe winter cold. Many of Yellowstone's bison spend at least part of the winter in the shelter of thermal areas.
One cold January morning, two bison bulls stood for several hours soaking up heat from the steam rising from Chromatic Spring in the Upper Geyser Basin. The steam coated the nearby trees and parts of the bison with frost, but at times the steam would envelop the bison long enough to melt the frost and make them sparkle with tiny drops of water. The bison were very passive and still, saving their energy for when they must leave this thermal oasis and search for food in the nearby heavy snow.
Q. What draws you back to Yellowstone, year after year?
A. Wild land is my interest. It's amazing to me that we have one of the finest wild land ecosystems in the world and a core of that is in Yellowstone Park. It's beautiful; it's accessible. Three and a half million people visit every year, but most of them stay on the roads and the parking areas, which is fine. But get off the road, and it's a profoundly beautiful, healthy, wild place. I like it. That's why I live here.
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Autumn colors and Mt. Moran at the Oxbow Bend.
Q. When you go out into Yellowstone or anywhere else, do you have an idea in mind of the images you want to capture?
A. I travel under the precept of serendipity. There's always something going on out there. And I try not to get too obsessive about seeing something or experiencing something specific. And although I know the seasons and what happens in different seasons, and all the seasonal rounds, they call them, of wildlife—the cycles of flowers and snow and that sort of thing—there's beautiful stuff everywhere, all the time.
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This adult bald eagle was standing on the ground. It was raining lightly and there was a 15–20 mile an hour wind blowing toward me from behind the bird. When the eagle turned its head at a certain angle the wind picked up the slender, delicate, wet, white feathers ruffling its normally smooth looking head and creating "a bad feather day."
Q. I'm sure there's a bit of a challenge carrying around that equipment in the winter. How do you work around that?
A. I haven't figured out how to work around it—I work instead! I ski a lot. I've skied across Yellowstone twice, one time by myself. I start out with, usually, a 70 pound pack. But you can't do much fancy with a 70 pound pack on your back. It's kind of a slog. I always lose a lot of weight … I don't ski to ski. I mean I like to ski; it's fun. But the main reason I go out to ski is to see country that I can't see, no one can see, without doing what I do—put on skis and just go, leave the roads, leave the developed areas and just go back into the backcountry.
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Members of the famed Druid Pack of gray wolves.
Q. What changes have you seen in Yellowstone since the return of wolves?
A. The reintroduction of the wolf has been a phenomenal environmental benefit to the park. I had a chance to see the impacts on elk and the regeneration and rebirth of the riparian areas after the wolves modified the elk's behavior. It's now become a much more healthy area. I think if we give the wolves a chance, they'll do well. They've rebounded up to the limits that we have allowed them. We need to keep safe areas for them to live. Yellowstone has been a nursery for animals from the beginning. A lot of animals come in and graze their babies here and then migrate out of the park. They're pretty safe in the park, but not so safe outside the park—that's when things get sticky.
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Standing and lying on the relatively warm geothermally heated ground, these bison were coping with one of Yellowstone's typical February mornings. By holding very still or moving slowly in the cold they conserved energy which also allowed frost to accumulate all over them. They left this spot only when hunger drove them to the surrounding deep snow.
Q. What is it about the winter season that draws you to the park?
A. Winter is more of an elemental time. It's the limiting factor of most animals—lack of food and the cold and the rigors of surviving in that basic environment. And then, plus, the landscape is changed completely, covered with two to three to five, ten feet of snow. The place doesn't look the same. So I find it really intriguing and interesting how it radically changes. I grew up on a cattle ranch in the snow, too, so I'm comfortable when it's cold. So I'm not afraid to be out there, but I'm also aware of the difference between the Yellowstone that most people are familiar with, and then the winter Yellowstone.
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The warmest light of the day will be at sunrise or sunset. Puffs of steam from the Old Faithful geyser cone moved up and covered the early gold sun rising above the distant ridge. The geyser had erupted a few minutes earlier and the runoff channels were still steaming too.
Q. How have you partnered with conservation organizations?
A. Well, what I do is I try to spread my influence out as much as I can. And my influence is small, I think, but I donate use of my photographs to conservation and preservation. My theory is this: I make photographs of things that I find beautiful, creatures and wild land. If I can do well at that, people will be attracted to those photographs, and say, "Wow, that is beautiful." Once they establish that it's beautiful, then it's valuable—and once you establish that it's valuable, then it's worth saving.
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While on a fifty mile backpacking trip from Jackson to Yellowstone Lake, we camped one night near the mouth of Trapper Creek. In the dark I set up the camera on a tripod facing north to Colter Peak and Turret Peak. During the ten minute exposure, I walked in front of the camera going from one tent to the next and illuminated each with a small hand-held flash by firing the flash behind each tent and toward the camera. The clouds blurred as they blew across the sky, the stars appeared to move, and the landscape was lit by a three-quarter waxing moon.
Q. You're out there in the backcountry for days and days. Do you ever feel lonely?
A. I think the perception of loneliness has to do with a feeling about wanting to be around other people. I like people a lot. But I find nature, particularly wild country, the most honest, clean and interesting thing I've ever encountered. It's not a matter of being lonely, it's a matter of being intrigued.
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Bison calves, like all infants, spend significant time playing. Playing develops strength, coordination and agility as well as bonding and competitiveness as a calf seeks a place in the herd's hierarchy. This cow and calf were unusual because they played together for about five minutes. I have rarely seen cows play with their calves for more than 30 seconds. The cow stood with her head down, encouraging the calf to push against her. The calf backed up with her tail in the air and made short runs at her mom's head. The calf danced around thumping into the cow's large skull but could not move it even an inch.
Q. How has climate change affected Yellowstone?
A. I've seen in Yellowstone, the animals, their seasonal rounds are different. They're moving higher, earlier. It's drier and they're having trouble with food. You get an easy winter, for example, there's less snow cover, which makes it easier to get at the grass. So that's good news; you get a lot more births. There are a lot of bison calves this spring, for example. I love bison. So that's good. But yet, by the end of the summer there's less food, because the grass hasn't grown as well because it's drier. So it's a complex thing, and it's hard to articulate all of what you see. But it's sort of subtle, but yet it's cumulative.
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Rainbow at Tower Fall, where water hits the rocks at 100mph.
Q. For those who may not have the opportunity to make it to Yellowstone in their lifetime, wha would you like to share with them?
A. The idea that Yellowstone is here, even if you never make it. It's like, I'll never make it to all of the wild places I want to see, but I don't care that I will never see them. But somebody will see them and, more importantly, the creatures that are in those places will have a secure place to live. The Earth is healthier and stronger with diversity. Even the people who can't come to Yellowstone Park, or Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, or the Central Plateau of Antarctica, it doesn't matter if people aren't there. What matters is that that living room for those creatures is a safe place. It's too selfish, in a lot of ways, to say 'I need to see this before it's valuable.' It's valuable in some ways because I can't see it. In other words, wild land can't be overrun with us.
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The sunset light illuminated a narrow band of the landscape. During a brief few minutes these bald eagles were lit by gold sunlight while the mountain ridge and clouds were in the blue-gray scattered light.
Q. What changes have you seen in Yellowstone over the decades?
A. The winters definitely are warmer. Less snow. Drought is a serious factor in Yellowstone. In the last 15 years, we've basically been in a drought. And then also, it's going to change the ecology of the place, which in itself isn't a bad thing, but it's changing so quickly. Earthjustice does work on trying to preserve wild land, which is phenomenal and I'm very impressed with what they do, but it's a big story. We can't really talk about just Yellowstone's problems. It's our Earth's problems.
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A brown bear cub touches mom's nose at Katmai National Park in Alaska.
Q. Have you experienced run-ins with big predators?
A. I've probably had two or three thousand bear encounters in my career, and half of them I never knew about, which means I'd come along and find tracks and signs that I'd spooked a bear away. So I didn't even know they were there. They knew I was coming and they left. And then I've seen lots of bears, from Alaska, Canada, and here in the Yellowstone area. My attitude about being in any wild place, particularly bear country, is I'm a guest in their living room. So I need to act and move respectfully and humbly in their house.
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Every twenty-nine plus days our moon moves around us and is in position opposite the sun. It is called a full moon because we can see the fully illuminated surface. On clear nights, this rocky mirror casts reflected sunlight down on our night landscapes, creating bright shadows and reflections like this across the still surface of Yellowstone Lake.
Q. Have you come across the elusive wolverine?
A. I've seen their tracks a couple of times. It's all in Yellowstone Park. I've never seen one in the wild. That is probably the single most keystone species, I would say, that defines wild land. If you've got wolverines, that's really wild country.
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Grizzly bear cub, playing in the snow.
Q. How do you handle close calls with bears?
A. The main thing is, figure out right away how to get away from there. And of course, you never run away. That's the worst thing you can do. It's a trigger, basically, to have them follow you. But, get away as fast as you can, keeping in mind, what is the problem? Why are they upset? If you just woke them up, most of them will just take off, run away and leave you alone. You've ruined their nap, but they're gone. Some of them say, you shouldn't have done that, and run at you. So, since you can't outrun a bear, you don't run away. You try to stand still or slowly move back.
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Sunrise over Yellowstone River.
Q. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
A. People that I met and talked to with Earthjustice are passionate about things that are really important to wild land and preserving a clean, beautiful Earth. And it's like, wow, kindred spirits for me. It's not about money; it's about taking care of this place.
In an ecosystem where all life is interrelated and connected, the decline of one life form can precipitate the decline of another. In other words, as the whitebark pine seeds go, so go the Yellowstone grizzlies.