Nature First Principles in Wildlife Photography

written by Brynn Schmidt

Nature First is a global movement of nature photographers who have taken a pledge to put nature ahead of our photography to preserve our wild places. We realize that our own actions as photographers have impacted the land and places we visit and we want to counteract that impact and preserve the wild places we love for future generations. While a lot has been written about this movement and landscape photography, we haven’t addressed the issues associated with wildlife photography quite as much. I thought I would take an opportunity to do that here and to encourage all of you to join us in this movement at Nature First Photography.

Let me start out by saying that I have not behaved perfectly in the past with wildlife photography. This is not a post to shame anyone in any way because I have been there, but to hopefully educate everyone a bit on how we can do better as wildlife photographers. I know that it is difficult as a wildlife photographer to balance getting close enough for a good shot and keeping a safe distance for yourself and the wildlife. Since signing on with Nature First, I have been very careful in my photography to not impact an animal’s behavior and to obey all rules and regulations about the correct distance. I can often get the shot from a safe distance, but not always the shot I want. In these situations, I now put wildlife first and walk away without the shot. I have learned that I feel much better about myself when I do this than the couple times I have pushed the boundaries of what I know to be smart wildlife photography. There were two times where I felt I went a little too far in trying to get the shot and I don’t even enjoy the images as much because I know what I did was wrong and may have bothered the animal a bit. I have never approached wildlife in a dangerous way and this is really important. Still, I can do better and am working on that all the time now.

 

So, lets look at the Nature First principles and how we can work to apply them to wildlife photography and become better advocates for our wildlife:

Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography

This principle is pretty basic when it comes to wildlife but can be hard to follow through on when we get caught up in getting the shot we are hoping for. Putting nature first means putting wildlife first – always. In national and state parks, this means keeping the distance required by law from the animals. In areas with less rules or in your own neighborhood, it means discerning what is appropriate. For the foxes that I photograph in our backyard, I basically keep the same distance that I would in a national park and also make sure that my camera and position never impacts or changes the animal’s behavior.  Putting wildlife first means not interrupting their actions or the path they are trying to take. It also means following all other rules regarding wildlife such as shining lights on them or calling to them with animal noises. I have found that I am always so happy with my photos when I know the wildlife wasn’t concerned in any way about me and that I didn’t interfere with them. For shots where this isn’t possible, I have learned to just enjoy watching the animal in its habitat and maybe doing a phone video to capture the moment for me to watch later. This can be done at a good distance when you aren’t worried about getting the photo anymore.

Educate yourself about the places you photograph

This is a really important and easy one, especially since most of the wildlife we photograph is in national parks. We can make sure we know the park’s rules and regulations for distance required from wildlife. This varies in some parks, so know before you go. The distances allowed vary from viewing a grizzly bear to an elk as well. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, you must keep 100 yards between you and grizzlies and wolves, but only 25 yards between you and elk. Also, learn all the other rules such as never approaching or feeding wildlife, etc. This information is easily found on park websites and maps when you enter the park. In Smoky Mountains National Park, you have to keep 50 yards between you and elk and black bears. So pay attention as rules are different in our parks. I would still be very careful with the distance rules as wildlife moves fast and you can still end up in a dangerous situation. One time in Glacier, we were a good 75 yards away from a moose and her calf. Then a bull came out of the willows and punched the female with his front legs and immediately chased her across the shallow lake right to where we were sitting. We had less than 5 seconds to get away and in between trees before they thundered behind us and around us. That crazy experience taught us to be more careful than even what the park rules suggest. Another example is running into a grizzly sow and two cubs on a trail in Glacier. Instead of continuing on when they were 75 yards away, we chose to back up slowly and exit the trail for the day. So, most importantly, be smart and that starts with education.

Reflect on the possible impact of your actions

Our actions are extremely important when dealing with wildlife. Our behavior can interfere with wildlife taking care of their young, abandoning their young and mating. Also, there are times that we don’t even know the impact, such as Yellowstone bison in winter. The first couple winters I spent in Yellowstone, I didn’t realize that driving up on a herd of bison on the road can cause them to run – when they need to conserve all of their energy to just survive. For the last several years, when I come up on bison on the road, I stop. I take my time and move the car slowly forward until the herd moves off the road. While many people wont’ do this, those of us who photograph wildlife do it because we love these animals. Also, when too many people get too close to animals or allow them access to food, we can lose our precious wildlife if they become too acclimated to people. We see this especially with black and grizzly bears who end up euthanized if they interact with people too much and end up showing any aggression. We can do our part to take care of our animals and protect them in some pretty easy ways.  Also, if we get to close to a wild animal, we can put ourselves in danger and not just the animal, as we have all seen happen with bison, elk and tourists in Yellowstone

Use discretion if sharing locations

I think this is one of the easiest ways we can protect wildlife once we are back home and sharing our photos. Share the national park you were or are at, share the area with others in general, but consider not posting exactly where you saw the wildlife. Imagine if ten people were watching a grizzly bear and then all went home and posted the exact location. The next day there could be hundreds of people looking for this bear and that would overwhelm it. This is just a suggestion but one I stick to. I still share the national park I took the photo in, I just don’t give specifics. If someone cares enough about where you saw the animal, you can have them privately message you and share with them that way if you want to. Just take time to consider whether sharing locations is worth it or not. This will vary for everyone.

Know and follow rules and regulations

I touched on this one under educating yourself about where you photograph wildlife. I would just reemphasize that it is very important to follow all rules and regulations. They are there to keep us safe as well as the wildlife.

Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them

If you aren’t familiar with Leave No Trace principles, please learn about them. They provide great advice for all of us to take care of our environment whether we are photographers, hikers, campers, climbers, etc. As wildlife lovers, we need to follow the guidelines of not hiking through sensitive habitat or places we shouldn’t be, along with respecting wildlife. You can find the principles and more here.

Actively promote and educate others about these principles

I love this principle as it is always a goal of mine to teach others what I know about our wild places and wildlife. My parents educated me on all these things throughout my life and as a parent, I have done the same thing to instill a love of nature into our kids. As they have learned about nature and wildlife throughout their lives, the lessons have come with education on why it is important to protect our wild places and how they can take part. I love meeting people in our parks and sharing knowledge I have about a certain animal. Honestly, I am a bit of a wildlife dork and full of lots of information. When watching wolves and grizzlies, I always share our scope with others as it allows them to often see their first wolf or bear. I then get the opportunity to share what I know about these animals and how we can protect them. It is an easy way to start a conversation and then I can move it into a broader conversation of the principles that I follow in general with Nature First while out in nature. Try and be creative in ways that you share these principles and educate others. I recently saw a Facebook post from Great Smoky Mountains National Park that used the term “social distancing” for people with the park’s wildlife – I thought this was a really clever and relevant way to remind people to keep safe distances from wildlife. It was pretty entertaining too in the current culture we live in.

This time where we are all at home a lot more and not out capturing as many wildlife images is a great time to think about our future actions, educate ourselves more and plan ahead for when we can get back out in nature. If you have any questions or want more information, feel free to email me at brynn@flatironsphotography.com.

An Earth Day Like No Other

“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” – Aldo Leopold

It’s an Earth Day like no other as the majority of us continue to shelter in place during this Covid-19 pandemic. We won’t be celebrating together in groups or marches this year, but we can still turn our focus to caring for this one and only planet that we have. Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the first anniversary of the Nature First photography movement. I have mentioned before that I am a community advocate for the Rocky Mountain region for Nature First and I am so thankful to have a role where I can make a difference in protecting our natural world. If you haven’t signed up yet to join the movement, please consider doing so on Earth Day here. If you are a member and post on social media today or join today, please use #NFEarthDay so that we can find and feature some of your photos and posts.

This year, Earth Day feels extra special as I am missing our natural world so much right now. I have been photographing birds, foxes, flowers and snow from my house, but I long for the days where I can get back to the mountains, beach, watch wildlife, hike and photograph nature. As I look toward the future, I want to be sure that my focus continues to be on making wise choices that protect our wild places and the wildlife that live there. That includes following all Leave No Trace principles and Nature First principles listed below.

THE NATURE FIRST PRINCIPLES

  • Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
  • Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
  • Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
  • Use discretion if sharing locations.
  • Know and follow rules and regulations.
  • Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  • Actively promote and educate others about these principles

I hope you enjoy a selection of some photos from the last few years in celebration of this special day. We will all get back out in nature soon enough, let’s just make sure we do it the right way. Thanks for reading everyone – Happy Earth Day!

Join The Nature First Photography Alliance

written by Brynn Schmidt

As an outdoor community, we are all seeing the negative impacts in many wild places that our adventures and photography are creating. I have been working on how to change my practices and found this awesome international organization focused on “conserving the places we love and photograph through wise use, education, outreach, community, and research” — Nature First. I am now the Rocky Mountain Region Community Advocate for Nature First and look forward to connecting with any of you interested in joining the movement or learning more.

The overcrowding in our national parks and on public lands in the last few years is undeniable. There are many reasons for this such as a strong economy and lower gas prices, but two of the most significant are the invention of the smart phone and social media. Everyone is a photographer now because of the phones we have and so many of us enjoy sharing our photos on social media. Along with this, we have seen funding decrease for our national parks at a time when more, not less, is needed. 

As the crowds continue to rise, photographers (both professional and those with their phones) continue to travel and post to social media and our overall impact on our public lands is having a negative effect. Many of us are looking for ways to make positive changes as we continue to use our public lands. This is where Nature First comes in. The goal of Nature First is for us to enjoy nature responsibly, and they have come up with seven principles for the photographer community that put nature ahead of getting “the shot”. This is a newer organization with about 1500 members. The goal for 2020 is to get over 10,000 people signed on and I think we can definitely do that this year! You can learn more and take the pledge here: Nature First Photography Aliiance. Below are the Nature First principles and once you sign up, we also have Facebook groups and email lists to allow you to get involved with others in the community.

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.
  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

Here are some practical ways for you to consider moving forward in a more responsible way as an adventurer and photographer:

  • Try to find new, lesser know locations to explore and photograph – I took the above photo at a lake in Grand Teton National Park and was the only one here on this crowded fall morning in the park. I absolutely loved the solitude and listening to elk bugle and only had two hikers pass by the whole time. Meanwhile, at Oxbow Bend, there were approximately 75-100 photographers. The cover photo for this post is from a remote location in Hawaii that we only found by doing a lot of research. We encountered seven people here, where at a black sand beach we went to on this day that is all over social media, there were at least 50-70 people.  
  • Give wildlife lots of space and respect their environment and how they are reacting to your presence
  • Don’t geotag on Instagram. Share general locations or none at all, but don’t tag specific locations
  • Educate others about these principles and why you are choosing to follow them
  • Encourage people with your social media posts – take time to share about impacts we are having on the environment and encourage others to think about it. Educate about a species, an area, how to protect it, the damage that has occurred.
  • Follow the rules. They are there to protect you and the natural environment around you.
  • Tread lightly on the land and pack out any trash you find 
  • When you go to popular photo spots such as the one below, consider the impact your actions have. I will always still visit some of these places that I have been going to for a couple decades because they are a part of who I am. Stay on designated trails, be respectful of others and if wildlife appear, give them plenty of space and back up if necessary. 

Together, we can work toward improving our experience and others’ as well, while we put nature first in all that we do. Please check out the Nature First website and feel free to contact me at brynn@flatironsphotography.com if you would like more specific information, especially for the states in the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. 

The Looming Delisting of the Gray Wolf

Yellowstone Wolf #778 “Big Brown” by Brynn Schmidt

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

We have spent the last 20 years supporting organizations who have fought to protect wolves across the United States and especially in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. We travel year after year to Yellowstone, especially in winter to view them through a scope, and when extremely lucky, see them up close such as in the photo above. We have watched wolves from over 8 packs throughout the years and cannot image the park without them now. During this time, we have also seen the wolf make a comeback in areas such as Minnesota, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest. It has taken decades to bring the wolf back from the brink of extinction in our country, and now the current administration is planning to delist them from the Endangered Species Act at a time when they are still so vulnerable.

“Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service now with the Defenders of Wildlife, told the AP that protections were needed to prevent “an all-out war on wolves” in states that would allow them to be hunted. “We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” she said.” – NPR, Trump Administration Seeks to Take Gray Wolf Off Endangered Species List, March 6, 2019

While wolves have made a comeback in some areas, they should not be delisted for a couple of reasons. The first is that they still haven’t reestablished packs in many of the ranges were they once roamed. The second, and more immediate reason is due to unbridled hatred that still exists against them across our country, especially among some ranchers and hunters. If you take a look at Idaho, Wyoming and Montana for example, once wolves were delisted in this area, hunting started immediately. Outside of the national park areas, Wyoming has even deemed them varmints that can be killed on site. (read Sierra Club article here) Without protection, we will see wolves once again vanish from the landscapes except for those who remain within national park boundaries. (Currently during hunting seasons, if a wolf crosses an invisible boundary line from Yellowstone, they can be killed. There is no buffer of protection.)

There is so much that goes into this debate and it would take too long to discuss all the different aspects of this debate. I thought I would list some great articles and organizations here where you can learn more or take action instead. My hope in posting this is that those of you who haven’t been advocates of the wolf in the past could step up and get involved as the Trump Administration attempts to delist them across the country. They are already hunted and killed in large numbers across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and we will see this increase more in these states and others if they are delisted. Please stand with me to fight this proposed delisting.

Check out these resources to get involved or learn more:

Why Kids Need Adventure and Wilderness and Adventure Now More Than Ever

Let your kids be wild……written by Brynn Schimdt

Photo by Eric Schmidt

These days, our kids’ lives are overscheduled, filled with pressure, and can be pretty intense. School, homework, sports and/or other extracurricular activities fill the week and often consumes many weekends as well. We all can feel like there is no time left to fit anything else in. There has to be. Our younger kids and teenagers need wilderness and adventure in their lives and who better to model it to them than us, their parents. I would actually argue that it is more important than a lot of the scheduled activities we have them in now. Wilderness and adventure will help develop them into well-rounded young adults.

1. Kids need the freedom to learn what life is like without a schedule.

There are so many books out there right now about the next generation and the lives they are living with the pressures that surround them and the belief that they cannot fail. Let them fail in some areas of their lives. The outdoors is a perfect place to learn to try new things. It takes a lot of work to get strong at wilderness activities, but there really is no failure – you just try again. I have found that getting my high school son out to climb, hike, and backpack has been the only thing that has provided him with some balance and perspective. Now that he is climbing regularly and hiking a lot on weekends too, he is starting to view school through a more realistic lens. It definitely helps with our kids that we started them out young and they have grown up living a lot of their lives outdoors. However, it is never too late. Take your kids out so they can actually just sit and watch a sunset instead of seeing it out the car window on the way to a game or academic event.

2. Kids of all ages need a connection to nature.

There is no substitute to exploring the natural world around us. While not all children have easy access to nature, there are many programs in cities that serve to get children involved with nature. If you are a parent who has access to wilderness around you, engage your children in it. This can range from something as simple as going on your first beginner hike (look them up right here on the Outbound Collective – there are most likely some right in your area) to cross-country skiing, backpacking, or photographing nature.

Photo by Eric Schmidt

3. Kids need time to kick back and relax.

Provide them with boredom. Make them figure out how to entertain themselves when they are in a wilderness setting. One of my sons used to spend half a day building rock structures at the campsite or river. My older son kicks back in his hammock and just rests after hiking while staring up at the sky. That’s it. Nothing exciting, but so good for them.

4. Kids need to figure out how to exist without technology.

Seriously, I cannot even begin to list all of the things that suck up our kids’ time when they are at home. If you have younger kids, it is often ipads, video games or TV. With older kids there is the computer they need for their schoolwork and research, texting, social media and on and on. Take them to places where there is no cell service at all. I am totally serious. If they have phones, they will learn to take photos of their adventures and the beauty around them since nothing else will work on those devices they cannot let go of. They will probably gain a real appreciation for nature. Show them that not only can they survive without technology, but they can thrive and love the time away.

5. Kids must be taught the importance of conservation.

In my opinion, the next generation isn’t going to have the option of not conserving our resources. Teach them how to do it now and model it constantly for them. We have a huge role to play here. Take them out where there are national forest and park rules about feeding animals, litter, packing in and packing it out, etc. Help them learn how important the natural world is.

The Current Attack on the Endangered Species Act

Photo by Eric Schmidt

written by Brynn Schmidt for The Outbound Collective, February 20, 2017 – posted March, 2019 as the conversation is still very relevant.

While the Endangered Species Act (ESA) enacted by Congress in 1973 is not perfect, the changes Republicans are calling for would be catastrophic for our endangered wildlife. Under the Trump Administration and Republican-controlled congress, it is looking like the act is headed for the hardest fight of its 44 year life. The reason there is hope is that the majority of our citizens support the ESA. “‘Animals are awesome’ is the only safe topic of conversation most American families have left. Left-right, old-young, black-white, Americans agree: Four legs, good” (Peter Weber, The Week)

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a law that exists in our country to protect endangered and threatened wildlife, as well as critical habitat for these animals. At a basic level, the act seems pretty straight-forward and has been a success at savings many species. A few well known species that would most likely have gone extinct without the protection of the act are the Bald Eagle, Gray Wolf, Manatee, Whooping Crane, Grizzly Bear, Florida Panther and Peregrine Falcon. The ESA has meant life or death for many animals and plant life as well and overall is a law the the majority of people in our country support. A 2015 survey shows over 90 percent of Americans from both political parties support the Endangered Species Act. (the Endangered Species Coalition and Audubon). This act is absolutely critical and without it we would lose species that would forever impact the future of our planet. 

“Forty-four years ago, the most important wildlife-conservation law in American history passed the U.S. Senate with a vote of 92 to 0. “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” President Richard Nixon said after ratifying the Endangered Species Act (ESA).” – Brian Palmer, Audubon

The ESA is under attack by Republicans based on the parts in the law that protect land and prohibit oil, drilling, mining, logging and some landowners’ rights. If an endangered species exists in a certain area, that habitat is protected. The Republicans feel there is an issue of ‘take” where landowners can lose their own property rights due to some endangered species found on it. I will briefly get into this a little more later and do believe there are ways this can be improved. However, right now, we have to fight to keep the act from being gutted where these species will lose all their protection. This is happening right now in Congress with the first meeting to dismantle the act last week and we ask that you join us in making your voice heard in any way.

Without getting too far into the weeds of this act and the problems it is facing, let me start with explaining the basic purpose. There are three main purposes of the ESA. The first is to protect species that are listed as “endangered”. These species are likely to become extinct without protection of their habitat and working to create habitat corridors for the animals to move through. The second are called “threatened” species. These are species that are likely to become endangered in the future but are not yet, therefore they do not have as much protection. The third part is protecting what is considered “critical habitat” – the land needed to save the animals.

The ESA is continually under attack under Republican-controlled Congresses, even though it was a Republican president who signed it into law. Currently, within the first four weeks of the Trump Administration, congress has introduced several bills to weaken the act. As of right now, “14 attorney generals are asking the Trump administration to revise the law. Meanwhile, long-time ESA nemesis Rep. Bob Bishop (R-UT) is threatening to repeal it.” – Brian Palmer, Audubon While a complete repeal would be difficult with the general support it has across the nation, changes could be made to weaken it that would be almost as catastrophic. Those attacking the act want to take the land back and reduce the laws that protect land for species endangered. However, if the land protection (critical habitat) is reduced significantly, so is the protection of the species.

While the ESA definitely makes it difficult for landowners who find they have listed endangered species on their land, I do believe there are ways to work together as environmentalists and land owners to improve it. One such compromise was added to the ESA by my previous boss who owned an environmental law firm in CA. I was involved in working with him regarding the act and housing developers and saw how it could be done successfully. He helped created Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) which allowed land owners to work within the act to create wildlife corridors and access for use some of their lands while still protecting part of their land for protection of species. This is just one example of how groups worked together (the county of Orange, environmentalists, home builders, etc). I believe from what I have learned when I worked in this field that there are other options – they take time and are expensive, but they can help both land owners and keep our species protected. This starts getting a little off topic and if you are interested you can find articles regarding these issues. The most important take away, however, is that we cannot afford to let these species lose their protection. The ESA has been an American success story and protecting our species – both animal and plant – is extremely important to the huge majority of our population. However, Congress does not seem to be concerned with what the majority of Americans feel about this act and are working more with lobbyists and oil and mining companies to try to dismantle it.

“Then Endangered Species Act is the world’s gold standard” for government conservation. Ashe said. “It’s not perfect. It can be better. Your goal is to make it…stronger and better. (Darryl Fears, The Washington Post)

What can you do to help? Here are some easy ways to have an impact on protecting the ESA: 

How to Contact Congress

Take Action at Audubon Society by adding your name and information to their petition to protect the act. 

Take Action on Variety of Environmental Attacks through the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC)

Call your local congress representatives and let them know that you disapprove of any gutting of the ESA. 

It does appear that this administration pulls back when large numbers of citizens speak their voices and concerns and overwhelm their representatives. Let’s work on doing that agin to protect this act and the environment in general.