National Geographic has nominated two Yellowstone researchers as Adventurers of the Year for their work on elk migration.
Research biologist Arthur Middleton and photographer Joe Riis were selected as one of ten projects in The 2016 People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year, which highlights those who exhibit “remarkable achievements in exploration, adventure sports, conservation, or humanitarianism.” National Geographic is hailing them “The Wildlife Heroes” for their intensive elk study.
Middleton and Riis were previously recognized by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Draper Natural History Museum in 2013, which helped fund Riis and Middleton’s work. Partnering with the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation-USA, the museum awarded the pair its $100,000 Camp Monaco Prize. Now their project is receiving outstanding recognition. The pair also received three National Geographic Expedition Council grants. From a Center of the West press release:
Riis, a wildlife photojournalist, and Middleton, a research scientist at Yale, have traveled 1,600 miles by foot, horse, and mule on trails of migratory elk in northwest Wyoming. They’ve spent months deep in the backcountry, come face to face with grizzlies, watched herds of elk swim the South Fork of the Shoshone River, crossed 12,000-foot mountain passes, and collared elk to map their movements, all to better understand how long-distance migration ties together the landscape—from ranches near Cody to Yellowstone’s renowned Thorofare country.
Heretofore, the migratory behavior of Middleton and Riis’ elk was largely unknown. National Geographic characterized it as “a big hole in the available information – a huge swath of the Absaroka Range between Cody and Jackson, Wyoming.” The pair’s work goes far to fill this hole, illuminating a blank most people didn’t know existed.
“Science should not just be words on a page—which is what it’s been for way too long,” Middleton told National Geographic. “It needs to go further with a life in photographs, film, and the arts, all at once. I think for both me and Joe personally, we have to see it and feel it and experience it in order to be an ambassador for it … That’s why we each have to spend so much time in the field.”
Indeed, for Middleton, he hopes his work in Yellowstone will spur a new understanding of not only the Park but migration dynamics as a whole, especially between national parks and human civilization. From National Geographic:
“I think that we really need to re-imagine Yellowstone as a park that is inextricably connected to a wider world—a wider world that it gives many riches but to which it’s also vulnerable,” says Middleton, who works at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, but has spent much of the last eight years in northwest Wyoming. “For me and Joe, a lot of the fieldwork is to put feet on the same trail the animals are walking and be able to understand and talk about it beyond just GPS locations on a map.”
In 2014, the Center displayed Riis’ elk images in their “Pronghorn Passage” exhibition, a multimedia presentation centered on the movement of pronghorns through Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The museum is also planning to curate an exhibit about the pair’s work for 2016: “Invisible Boundaries: Exploring Yellowstone’s Great Animal Migrations.” Reportedly, a documentary is in development, tentatively titled Elk River. In addition, Riis will have his photos featured in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic, which will cover the National Park Service’s centennial.
Middleton, meanwhile, has accepted a wildlife ecology post at the University of California–Berkeley; he plans to keep studying the GYE and elk migration patterns.