Welcome to the blog for Steve Hinch Photography.
On this page you'll find photographic information on the places I've photographed recently as well as some technical information on the photographs themselves. I'll also post updates on what I've seen and experienced in Yellowstone and abroad, current wildlife sightings, and anything else of interest. Check back often for updates!
August 30, 2015 • Leave a Comment
It's that of the year when the grasses are brown, the mornings are cool, and soon the elk will be bugling. This big boy looks ready for the rut, the time of year when the big bulls battle in order to control harems of cow elk. I photographed this bull early one morning near Mud Volcano. When I first saw him, he was shrouded in fog and beautiful light, but cars ruined the background. The fog burned off quickly and clouds moved over the sun, and the elk moved into a different position than what I hoped, but this still ended up being my favorite image of the morning. Photo was taken with a 600mm lens.
August 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment
Wildflower season in Yellowstone is short lived. In fact, the growing season in general is short in the northern Rockies. Grasses and leaves start to grow in April and May, but by August, the grasses are brown. Leaves turn color in September. Wildflowers usually reach peak bloom by the middle to end of June. Hayden Valley had an amazing display of Lupine this year. This patch, blooming near the road, made a wonderful subject in early morning light with the Yellowstone River flowing behind them. I couldn't resist stopping and photographing them.
August 23, 2015 • Leave a Comment
Yellowstone National Park saw recording setting attendance in July, with with over 980,000 visits logged. That's 14% more than last July and brings the total attendance so far to over 2.2 million visitors, more than 17% higher than in 2014. But things appear to being slowing down a little, perhaps bringing numbers back to a more "normal" level. But, while the communities outside Yellowstone might be enjoying a financially successful year with all the extra visitors, is this increase in visitation good for Yellowstone? Roads are congested, parking lots are flowing over resulting in trampled vegetation as people short cut through meadows to see the park's natural attractions, and roadside wildlife are crowded as people approach well within the park's stated distances. Bison always are a major draw for Yellowstone, since the largest free roaming herd is found here. The breeding season for bison is slowly drawing to a close, though rutting behavior may be seen for another month or so. This image, was always, was taken with a long telephoto lens in Hayden Valley. While stuck in a bison jam one morning, the textures in the grasses along with the movement of the bison caught my eye. I opted for a vertical composition as the path the bison made through the grass complemented that orientation.
August 15, 2015 • 35 Comments
Bears that are considered "regulars" often become known by a name. This isn't in an attempt to humanize them or to give them traits and characteristics that they may not have. Bears are given names simply as a means to identify them. Some bears are known by the numbers that wildlife researchers have assigned to them such as "399" and "610" in Grand Teton National Park while other bears, such in Katmai National Park, are identified by using names. Yellowstone National Park has always had a black bear sow named "Rosie" probably for as long as black bears have been seen around Roosevelt Lodge, with this moniker being passed down from bear sow to bear sow. And so I'm going to share the part of the life, to the best of my knowledge, of a Yellowstone grizzly bear referred to as "Blaze". I'll use other names to identify other bears, but again, this is simply to identify them. She was called Blaze because it's much easier to say "Blaze", than "the sow with the big light blaze on it's side" every time we referred to this bear. It is believed that Blaze was somewhere between 20 and 25 years old, most likely around 23 years. That number is based on experiences from friends and colleagues that have watched her over the years. I made my first trip to Yellowstone in 1996, but didn't spend much time in the Lake area then, or on many of my subsequent trips. In 2005, I took a seasonal job in Yellowstone in the Lake area that was only supposed to be for one summer but ended up being seven years! While I had seen Blaze during my "tourist" years, once I became a resident and lived in the same part of the park as she did, I began to recognize her during her frequent roadside visits. And before I continue, let me stress that all the photos here and of all the bears and other wild animals I have photographed have been taken with at least a 500mm lens, often with a teleconverter, either from the side of the road with rangers and others present, or from the inside of my vehicle.
In 2005, Blaze already had a one year old cub with her, born in 2004. In April, 2006, on a trip down to Lake to set up my housing, Blaze was the first bear I saw that year, in the meadow in front of the closed Lake Lodge. She emerged from the forest and strolled out into the meadow with a two year old cub in tow. The cub, almost as big as she was, would also be a regular for a few years, though he never came back near Fishing Bridge or Lake. He moved out near Lake Butte and would often be seen there until 2009. Most likely large enough to fend for himself by that point, he probably became a backcountry bear. But Blaze would stay in her home turf and raise her cubs near the road, as she had always done. For a bear to be as close to developed areas as frequently as Blaze was, it's incredible that she never got into any trouble. But she chose to raise her cubs every year close to humans and away from the big males that roamed the backcountry. Male grizzlies will kill cubs if they encounter them so that the female will mate again. Blaze's strategy worked to a point, she did keep them safe from male grizzlies, mostly.
At best, a female grizzly will have new cubs every four years. Black bears wean their cubs in their second summer, but grizzlies keep their cubs for two summers, weaning them in late spring of the third year and then mating again. Blaze emerged in 2007 with three cubs of the year. One of these cubs, shown on the far right, would perish within a month of this photo. It is unknown how the cub died. Blaze crossed the Yellowstone River frequently, so it's possible that it drowned. Or, as mentioned above, a boar grizzly may have killed the cub. But grizzly cubs, despite a very protective mother, only have a 50% chance of survival and face many dangers. I recently watched as a cub, failing to follow it's mother, bawled loudly. The sow instinctively turned in the direction of it's baby's cry and charged full speed to eliminate the threat. There was no threat, the cub simply was left behind, but it was an amazing reminder how protective a mother grizzly will be and how quickly and forcefully they respond. I can't imagine what might have happened if another bear, a wolf, or a coyote had been the reason for the cub to cry out.
The photo above shows Blaze near the trailhead to Elephant back with two of her three young cubs of the year. White Claws was easy to identify because, even as an adult, he had that lighter colored natal color around his neck, while Raspberry, peering around mom from behind, had that little light colored face. Blaze was identified by, and hence the name used to identify her, the light blaze up her side. Because of the lack of diversity in the gene pool, many grizzlies have similar markings, but on this bear, it was more pronounced. Unlike grizzlies in Glacier National Park, the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) are genetically isolated. There are no other grizzly bear populations until one goes much farther to the northwest. While grizzlies in the GYE have done well, thanks largely to females like Blaze that have successfully raised cubs every four years, they are still an isolated population. The Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative is a conservation attempt to genetically link up these populations.
As Blaze's cubs grew, so did the crowds that watched them. For whatever reason, in 2007 and 2008, she spent more time roadside with Raspberry and White Claws that any of her other cubs, before or after. Perhaps there were more male bears in the backcountry areas where she preferred to feed, or perhaps, as seen in the above photo, the snow pack in 2008 just meant less places to forage and the roadside provided the better, safe habitat. For whatever reason, Blaze gave many people their first and perhaps only viewing of a grizzly bear in the wild. I recall the excited faces of park visitors in actually seeing a wild grizzly, a dream that has brought many people to Yellowstone. When I talk to park visitors one of the first, and perhaps most common questions I get is "where can I see a bear?" For many people, Blaze was that bear. If you ever saw a bear with cubs near Fishing Bridge, Mary Bay, or the Lake area, it was probably Blaze. She was very tolerant of the crowds that gathered to watch her. I recall watching her one day and a tour bus pulled up full of Asian tourists. They spilled out of the bus and immediately ran out pass the bear closure signs towards Blaze and her cubs. She looked up alertly and then herded up her cubs and moved them away from the crowd and off into the woods.
The area around Fishing Bridge and Lake Hotel are closed in the spring, from the time the road opens until the middle of June, in order to keep people and bears apart. You are not allowed off the road, out of the developed areas, or off trail anywhere around the Lake area. Many bears use this area in the spring in order to find food and maintain their weight until the nutritious food sources become available, such as cow parsnip, clover, Yampa root, and other high protein plants. The closure signs come down but the bears can't read and they often use these areas all summer. As an employee and resident in the Lake area for seven years and knowing of the bear population in the area, I never went off trail and when I hiked, I always carried bear spray, usually two cans. My logic in carrying two cans was that if I needed and used one can, then I'd still have the second one to get me back out to the trailhead. I logged a lot miles my first several years in the park. I wish I was still able to hike that much now!
I saw Blaze once in the backcountry. I had hiked a popular trail in July. I was alone but had two cans of bear spray. One I always kept on my chest so it was easily accessible. About half way back to the trailhead, which was two miles from the road, I saw a bear with a couple of two year cubs. I pulled out my binoculars and saw it was Blaze. We were probably 300 yards apart. She and the cubs each raised their heads, one after the other, and briefly looked in my direction before returning to grazing. Being in the backcountry alone, with grizzlies nearby is a dangerous situation. It doesn't matter what bear. I don't photograph bears in the backcountry. I never have and I never will. The backcountry is anywhere away from the roads or developed areas. If you had to walk to get there and there's no pavement around, then you're in the backcountry. Yellowstone National Park may have been set aside "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" as the inscription states on the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana, but the backcountry is the domain of the grizzly. If you step foot in the backcountry of grizzly bear country, then you better have bear spray and be properly prepared. And if you see a bear, don't stick around to take photos of it. I didn't. Even though she only glanced towards me and then went back to foraging, I moved off down the trail, trying to put as much distance between us as possible, while still trying to move calmly and without drawing her attention.
Blaze had done a good job with her remaining two cubs from the 2007 litter. White Claws and Raspberry had made it to adulthood and Blaze sent them off on their way in 2009 so she could breed again. The two cubs seemed to split their mothers territory in half with Raspberry moving out to the east and White Claws staying in the Lake area. Unfortunately this wasn't a good choice for the young male bear and the park service often hazed him away from the developed areas, firing cracker rounds at him to scare him away. White Claws story ended prematurely when, in 2011, he encountered two hikers on the Storm Point trail. The hikers weren't carrying bear spray, so when they encountered White Claws, they threw their backpack at him. He stopped and they ran away while he took and ate the food out of their backpack. Because he had received a food reward, the park service, concerned that he might associate people with food, made the decision on August 1st to euthanize him. If the hikers had carried and used bear spray, this might not have been the outcome. Another factor that probably played heavily in the decision to euthanize him was that only several weeks before, a hiker was killed by a grizzly with two cubs on the Wapiti Lake trail. The hiker, along with his wife, also failed to carry bear spray. To my knowledge, I have not heard of any fatal bear attacks on anyone who had bear spray with them.
After her regular appearances by the road with her two cubs, Blaze wasn't seen as much after she weaned them. For a sow grizzly, she was a good size, at least by Yellowstone standards and probably was able to hold her own against the larger backcountry boars when she didn't have cubs to worry about. Yellowstone doesn't have the abundant berry crops that some places have, like Glacier National Park. Glacier's grizzlies can be much larger than those seen in Yellowstone because Glacier has more reliable food sources for bears. Yellowstone's bears rely on grasses, roots, insects, and bulbs through much of the summer. They also scavenge carcasses when they find them. They are predators, but usually only hunt elk and bison calves, and only when those animals are still weak. Some large boar grizzlies have been known to take down adult bison, but it's the exception, not the norm, unless the bison is injured or very ill. In August, grizzlies enter a state called hyperphagia. This is when bears eat anything and everything they can in order to start gaining the weight needed to survive hibernation. Earlier in the summer, they may spend as much time sleeping as eating, but once August arrives and the bears enter this state, they mostly just eat. Typically, they move into the mountainous areas where they gorge on an insect called the army cutworm moth. They will eat thousands of these moths a day in order to get the calories they need. After the moths are gone, they move into the whitebark pine forest and gorge on pine cone seeds. But if one or both of these food sources fail, then bears have to find food elsewhere, which often gets them in trouble. But getting back to the photo above, in 2010, Blaze showed up one day in June with the little blonde cub seen here. This was the only day I saw this cub and I presume it was killed by a boar grizzly, because Blaze mated again in 2010 and would show up the next year with another cub.
2011 was a very snowy winter and spring for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Winter snows are critical to plant life, which in turn is critical to the park's wildlife. More snow pack means more moisture added to the landscape as it melts during the warmer summer months. But for a young grizzly cub, cold, wet snow isn't necessarily that much fun. I first saw Blaze in May, 2011 in front of Lake Lodge. Only a small crowd was present to watch her and I think the number of park rangers present may have been close to the number of tourists! Blaze wasn't just loved by the tourists, but the people responsible for keeping those tourists safe loved her too. One bear management employee in particular always had a big smile when he saw Blaze. It didn't take long before this little cub came up to his mother and climbed up on her back to get out of the snow. He tried to ride her, but wasn't to successful with those attempts. I often referred to this cub as "Peekaboo", not to give him a cute name, but because I used to describe him as "the bear cub from my Peekaboo Cub photo", which was too long to say. So I just eventually shortened it to Peekaboo. More commonly he was referred to as Hobo, probably because he tried to hitch a ride! Peekaboo/Hobo has since been collared as part of the bear research program, but, at least for now, appears to be using his mother's territory a little further east. Hopefully as he continues to get bigger, he'll become a backcountry bear and won't frequent the roads or developed areas anymore.
In June of the second year of life for Peekaboo, I saw him and his mother on the hillside near Mary Bay. I watched from the road with my binoculars as the two bears took off running as quickly as they could. A few minutes later, a boar grizzly appeared and, even though Blaze and Peekaboo were gone, it was obvious that the male had Blaze's scent and was following her. It was incredible to watch as this male bear, sniffing the ground and the air, followed Blaze's path exactly, even though he hadn't seen where she went. I hoped he would lose the scent as he neared the ridge, but he didn't, and went over the ridge in the exact spot that Blaze had done. With all the bears out of sight and night approaching fast, I felt that was going to be the last time I saw Peekaboo. So I was happy to see the cub a week or so later, in the same area, alive and well with mom. It's uncertain what might have taken place, or perhaps the male bear never caught up with them. But one thing is certain, a sow grizzly will defend her cubs with such a strength that it is almost unrivaled in the animal kingdom.
It was expected that Blaze would have cubs in 2014 since she was seen mating in the summer of 2013, after she weaned Peekaboo. But when she did show up, she didn't have any cubs. In fact, none of the sows that should have had cubs in 2014 had them. It's possible that the moths never showed up in the mountains, or that the whitebark pine crop failed. Whitebark pine trees only produce big crops every 4 to 5 years and they tend to fail more often than they produce. Grizzly sows, while they mate in June, the egg does not fertilize until the sow goes into hibernation. This is an incredible adaptation and how much weight the sow gains during the summer determines if any eggs will be fertilized and how many. And it's also possible that the eggs may be fertilized by the sperm of different boars, depending on how many boars the sow mated with in June. But in 2014, Blaze, the Hayden sow, and Raspberry (now old enough to have her own cubs), showed up without cubs. Because of this, Blaze wasn't roadside too often, again, feeding in the big bear territory away from the roads and the people.
The winter of 2014/2015 was one of the mildest winters in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in many years. Snows were melting off by the end of February and by April, many areas that should still have significant snow pack where already green with spring grass. When the road opened through Hayden Valley at the beginning of May, Hayden Valley was even beginning to turn green, instead of being covered in it's usual blanket of white at that time of year. With so many feeding areas available, bears had dispersed from the road areas and moved off. Blaze showed up again, now thought to be around 23 years of age. She had two little cubs of the year with her. But, whether because she had more places to feed, or perhaps due to other reasons, she seldom came to the road. Even when visible from the road, she kept her family several hundred yards away and rarely came closer. On one occasion, in front of Lake Lodge, before any lodging had opened in the Lake area, Blaze was fairly close to the parking lot. Several concessionaire employees decided to walk out to her to take photos with smart phones. Seeing this, I yelled at them to get back. About that time, Blaze noticed them, and woofed at her cubs. All three bears ran into the woods away from the employees and didn't stop until she had crossed the main park road. These two cubs were probably two of the most energetic and playful cubs I've seen. If there was a raven nearby, it was going to be chased. If a pile of bison poo was close, it became a toy. If none of those things were available, then it became a huge game of chase, with each cub taking turns as the "chaser" and "chasee", running huge circles around mom. Every tree was a jungle gym and every stone was a toy. I really can't remember seeing two cubs that were more energetic, and I've seen a lot of cubs!
On August 7, 2015 a park employee was hiking alone, off trail, without bear spray near the Elephant Back trail when he encountered a bear. What happened next is purely speculation, even by the park officials investigating the scene. for my seven years living at Lake, I never went off trail and always carried bear spray, but I was the exception, not the norm. In reality, few employees carry bear spray when they're hiking or recreating in the area. While it's easy to say that he shouldn't have been alone in the woods without bear spray, Lance Crosby didn't really do anything hundreds of other employees haven't done before him without consequence. Unfortunately for Mr. Crosby, it would be his last walk in the woods. It's not 100% percent certain that the sow with two cubs of the year that he encountered was Blaze. Perhaps it wasn't. There are other bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and there are several bears with cubs of the year. Blaze was a bear that provided many tourists, park employees, and local residents with their first and perhaps only wild grizzly bear sighting, making her a wonderful ambassador for her species. Many people came to fall in love with grizzlies and perhaps helped to advocate for them because of Blaze. I know she's a big reason, if not the main reason I chose to advocate for keeping grizzlies in our wild landscapes. She produced many cubs over the years, doing her part to keep grizzlies in our world. Of the six cubs she had since 2004, four of them made it to adulthood, beating the 50% average noted by researchers. In all her years of being a roadside bear, she never, to my knowledge, showed any aggression, often taking her cubs and moving on if crowds grew too large or people approached too closely. Because, in her more than twenty years of roaming freely in Yellowing National Park, she had never been aggressive, nor had been in any trouble, she had never been given a radio collar or ear tags and as such, never given an identifying number. So she was simply referred to as "Blaze".
August 09, 2015 • Leave a Comment
It's August, and with August comes the bison rut. Even a few bison near the road in Hayden Valley can cause big traffic jams, but in August, when the big bulls are fighting and chasing cows across the valley, traffic can back up for hours. A quick tip, if you want to watch and take a photo of the bison, stop in one of the many pullouts and not contribute to the traffic jams. And give bison plenty of room to do their thing. Park regulations require 25 yards from bison but they really should be given more room, especially when they are in their breeding season. A big bull, full of testosterone, can run incredibly fast, and he can take out his aggression on anything close enough, including people or cars. A bison may appear calm, as in this photo, but a bull's temperament can change immediately. This photo was taken early on one of the few mornings that I still go into the park. With the crowds this year, I've spent significantly less time in the park. But the rain caused some nice fog on this morning, which was illuminated by the rising sun.
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