Tom Murphy is a wildlife photographer who has spent countless hours documenting the beauty and wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. He shares 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."
During that time he's had plenty of grizzly bear encounters, but he is still waiting to cross paths with the ever-elusive wolverine. Tom spoke with Associate Editor Jessica Knoblauch in August of 2013.
All photos and captions are courtesy of Tom Murphy.
Jessica Knoblauch: Tom Murphy, welcome to Down to Earth.
Tom Murphy: Thank you.
Jessica: So as a photographer I know that you've led many tours. You've been to Costa Rica and Alaska and Africa. What draws you back to Yellowstone, year after year?
Tom: Wild land is my interest. I mean, I would go to Paris to eat chocolate. But other than that, I seek out wild places. Antarctica, for example, I've been there eight times. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous place.
Africa and Alaska also have wonderful wild land. But 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.
What do you seek out in Yellowstone?
Jessica: When you go out into Yellowstone or anywhere else, do you have an idea in mind of what you want to capture photographically?
Tom: 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. Basically what I'm frustrated with is I can't be in 63 different places at the same time. So I just look for whatever I find, whatever catches my eye.
Why does winter draw you to the Park?
Jessica: Each year, you're featured in a PBS Nature film called "Christmas in Yellowstone" and your book, Silence and Solitude, captures the winter wilderness. What is it about the winter season that draws you to the park?
Tom: 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.
How do you travel with photography equipment?
Jessica: I'm sure there's a bit of a challenge carrying around that equipment in the winter. How do you work around that?
Tom: 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. And most people only go on a backcountry overnight trip with me once, and they learn their lesson and don't do it again!
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. In 36 years of skiing in Yellowstone—about 40 different overnight trips, from one night to 15 nights at a time, maybe cumulatively 1500 miles or more—I've only seen three other parties, in that entire time. So, it's my park. I kind of like that, too.
Do you ever feel lonely in the backcountry?
Jessica: You're out there in the backcountry for days and days. Do you ever feel lonely?
Tom: 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. I learn stuff, I see stuff.
On one of my solo trips, I was in about three days and it was so quiet I could hear my heart beating. That's kind of a cool connection between, it's just me here and what I'm living in, this wild area, is not hostile to me, it's not a challenge. It's me as part of this place. And I'm not lonely in that kind of situation at all.
Jessica: Sounds great, makes me want to go camping right now!
Tom: Good, good. I hope everybody does it!
Have you seen impacts of climate change?
Jessica: You were talking about skiing through the snow and everything. And I know snowfall has decreased a bit with climate change. Have you seen any other changes?
Tom: Yeah, global warming is absolutely true. After watching, carefully watching wild land for 36 years in Yellowstone, a couple of main things I've seen is, it's warmer, definitely. 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.
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.
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.
And I see it other places, too. First time I went to Antarctica, it was 19 years ago. And there are glaciers there that I go back, I just saw last January the same glaciers that are half the size they were just 19 years before. And again, I've seen in Yellowstone, the animals, their seasonal rounds are different. They're moving higher, earlier. Its 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.
Have you seen wolverines?
Jessica: Well I know another animal that really depends on heavy snowpack is the wolverine, but these are creatures that most people don't see in their lifetimes. Have you come across a wolverine?
Tom: 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. Yellowstone Park Foundation did a survey, a five-year program to study wolverines in Yellowstone Park, and they only found three in the entire park. I can't imagine there are more than 50 in all of Montana and Wyoming. And they're hunting them, they're killing them in Montana. You can get a license to trap a wolverine, which I find obscene. [Editor’s Note: According to the Wolverine: Conservation in Yellowstone National Park final report, researchers captured four wolverines and monitored three others between 2005 and 2009.]
It's easy for a lot of people to say, well, it's not important because there's not very many of them, and how is the world going to be worse off without a wolverine? Someone said one time, "It's a loneliness of spirit without all these creatures." Even if people never see one, the world's a better place if they're here.
Do you seek out specific wildlife?
Jessica: Do you have a favorite animal that you like to track, or do you just go out there to see whatever you're going to see?
Tom: I go out there to see whatever happens along. I've got my eyes out for anything. I was watching a Great Grey Owl nest yesterday. It had two little owlets in it. And the female was in a tree nearby watching, just as a guard basically. They're crepuscular birds, which means they hunt in the morning and the evening, and they rest during the day and they sleep at night. There were little Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitting all around the trees near this owl as she was sitting there, patrolling and watching over her nest. I wasn't out looking for a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but it sure was cool to see them. They're all beautiful. I'm not a big fan of mosquitos or ticks, to be honest.
Tom: They have their place too, but hopefully not on my skin! So I like them all, I really do. I would have to pick some favorite creatures, like the mountain gorilla in Rwanda in the Virunga Mountains in Central Africa. It's an absolutely spectacular creature. And then in Yellowstone, one of my all-time favorites is bison. I love bison. So, I like them all.
Have you had close calls with large predators?
Jessica: I'm sure you've also come across bears while you're out there. Have you ever experienced any run-ins with big predators?
Tom: Yeah, 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.
And I've been charged by grizzly bears, three times, twice in Alaska and once in Yellowstone. It's a pretty intense experience. I wouldn't recommend it! And it was a mistake on my part. I wasn't doing anything wrong … I just stumbled across a place where I shouldn't have been, next to a carcass, in one case, and woke a couple of them up, in the other two cases. They're not dangerous inherently, but if you're not behaving yourself in their house they may knock you down.
How do you handle those close calls?
Jessica: What do you typically do if you find yourself in that situation?
Tom: Your blood pressure goes up pretty fast. But 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.
The theory about grizzly bears is they grew up and evolved on the prairie, where there weren't trees and things to climb and get away from a threat. So most of them run away, but the ones that don't, their idea is just to chase you away. Just because they see you doesn't mean they want to eat you, they just want you to go away. They're called bluff charges. What they're doing is running at you to make you run away.
I travel under the precept of serendipity. There's beautiful stuff everywhere, all the time. So I just look for whatever … catches my eye.
So, since you can't outrun a bear, you don't run away. You try to stand still or slowly move back. So if you're in a group, get the group together so you look like a larger organism, and if you're by yourself—which happened to me a couple of times—try to look tall, put your arms in the air, slowly back away. And of course, nowadays we have this stuff called bear spray, which is a very effective deterrent for anything.
I carry bear spray all the time now. A friend of mine sprayed me with bear spray one time—he said it was an accident … but I'll vouch that it's very effective stuff. I've had friends who have used it and it will knock a bear down. Just bam, knock them to the ground. So bear spray, it's not something you should do to a creature in their living room, but if you're going to get hurt, use it. It's not permanent damage to the bear and hopefully it won't happen again.
Tell us about your work with conservation organizations.
Jessica: I know that you have served on the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Park County Environmental Councils. What wildlife protection improvements have you been a part of as part of those councils?
Tom: 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.
So that's my method. Being on the boards of environmental groups is great, but my bigger mission is just to make photographs. Firstly, I like to eat, so I do it for a living. But the next step is these images should help inspire people to say, "Yeah, this is beautiful and therefore it's valuable and we don't want this to go away."
What would you like to share about Yellowstone?
Jessica: I was curious, for those who may not have the opportunity to make it to Yellowstone in their lifetime, what would you like to share with them?
Tom: Share 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.
It's too selfish, in a lot of ways, to say I need to see [a place] before it's valuable. It's valuable in some ways because I can't see it.
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. So we have to sort of trust that wild land is there and trust that the few people who do see it and do work to make sure that it is healthy. We need to trust that we don't have to have a whole bunch of people in there seeing it.
And the big picture, too, is, we came from wild land. Not too many generations back, we were hunter gatherers ourselves. For us still to be able to even touch it from a distance and know that that place we came from is still safe, that's an important spiritual concept, I think, that we need to maintain.
Jessica: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
We came from wild land. For us still to be able to even touch it from a distance and know that the place we came from is still safe, that's an important spiritual concept that we need to maintain.
Tom: I'm impressed with Earthjustice. 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.
Jessica: Definitely. Well and we couldn't do it without our supporters.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely.
Jessica: Well, Tom, thank you so much for your time. It's really been a pleasure talking with you.
Tom: Thank you, thank you.
Jessica: Tom Murphy is a photographer and author whose work has appeared in top-tier outlets like National Geographic and New York Times Magazine. To find out more about his wilderness photography tours, check out his website at tmurphywild.com. And for more interviews with environmental experts, please be sure to check out other Down to Earth episodes at earthjustice.org/DownToEarth.
The views and opinions expressed by guests on Down to Earth do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice, its board or funders.