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A Man Among Wolves: Photographing Yellowstone’s Iconic Predators

What would you do to be a National Geographic photographer? Would you trudge across a snowy volcano with a hundred pounds of gear thrown over your shoulder? Would you trek by yourself across a giant river oft visited by grizzly bears? Would you stake out in the dark wilderness with the howls of wolves getting closer and closer? Conservation photographer Ronan Donovan did all that and more for a year and a half to photograph Yellowstone National Park and the wolves that call it home.

Just like public visitors, Donovan was restricted from close encounters with wildlife in the park, but he was allowed to photograph in areas that are off-limits to tourists. Yellowstone National Park granted and governed National Geographic and Donovan’s access to these restricted areas as part of a larger effort to highlight research being conducted in the park. 

A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
A gray wolf meets the camera’s gaze in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Photograph by Ronan Donovan)

“One iffy experience I had outside of Yellowstone National Park,” Donovan recalls, “was when a pack of 14 wolves had been howling but I didn’t know exactly where they were. Sunset ends up coming so I’m about to hike out when I see a little saw-whet owl, this tiny little teacup owl that’s super cute and hard to find and hilarious. There’s a pair of them tooting back and forth so I start photographing them for an hour and I lose track of time. All of a sudden it’s pitch dark, so I decide it’s time to go.

A gray wolf, Canis lupus, at the Alaska Zoo. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations. Click on the image for more details.
A gray wolf, Canis lupus, at the Alaska Zoo. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations. Click on the image for more details.

“I hear these wolves up on the hillside maybe 300 feet away playing with each other, yipping and snarling, and I think, oh that’s pretty cool, I’m listening to wolves in the darkness. And then I start to hear legs brushing through grass and I realize the wolves are really close.

“I turn the headlight on and there’s three black wolves in the beam of light, frozen staring right at me. They look at me and then they erupt and run away because they’re super scared of people. I was never scared for myself necessarily, but you never want to startle an animal. And then as I’m hiking out, the wolves are all howling to each other because it’s a social bonding thing. When they get scared or nervous, they come together and howl and it makes them feel better.”

As one of six photographers in Yellowstone for National Geographic magazine’s special issue on America’s oldest park, Donovan said his goal was to “shed light on the way wolves interact in their natural landscape. A lot of times wolves get persecuted and this was an opportunity for me to just show wolves for what they were, for being large, beautiful, megafauna carnivores.” For Donovan, the photograph he made below captured the essence of Yellowstone’s wolves.

The alpha female of the Mollie's wolf pack and her two year-old offspring feast on the carcass of a bison that drowned in the Yellowstone River. (Credit: Ronan Donovan)
The alpha female of the Mollie’s wolf pack and her two year-old offspring feast on the carcass of a bison that drowned in the Yellowstone River. (Photograph by Ronan Donovan)

“This photo is of three wolves on a carcass in the wintertime along the Yellowstone River. It’s a family group—alpha females on the right and her two yearlings in the middle—and one of the wolves is looking straight at the camera. You can’t really see what’s going on at first because there’s so much snow, huge snowflakes coming down. That wolf pack, Mollie’s wolf pack, it’s the oldest pack in Yellowstone and they are big, beautiful, wild wolves in the sense that they live in the back country and they don’t see people very often. They’re as close to a true gray wolf as you can get in the lower 48 states, and that picture to me was one of my favorite images from the whole project.”

Donovan spent most of his time in restricted areas of Yellowstone, places most tourists will never see. “There’s this total hidden side to Yellowstone that is essentially as close as we can get to a pre-colonial North America. It has all the large mammals and natural ecosystems that are free of human touch essentially,” he says. “Since Yellowstone’s creation a hundred-plus years ago, the megafauna—the bison, the elk, the wolves, the grizzlies—they are at their highest numbers. It’s 2016 and you think there’s people everywhere and we keep carving away at wilderness areas, but here we have Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, and it’s doing better than it was when it was created, which is fantastic.”

The Mollie's wolf pack investigates grizzly bear tracks in Yellowstone's Pelican Valley.
The Mollie’s wolf pack investigates grizzly bear tracks in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley. (Photograph by Ronan Donovan)

Ronan Donovan is a grantee of National Geographic’s Expeditions Council. To learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society, visit natgeo.org/grants.

VIDEO CREDITS:
PRODUCER/EDITOR: Nora Rappaport
SERIES PRODUCER: Chris Mattle
FOOTAGE/IMAGES: Ronan Donovan

The National Geographic Photo Ark isa multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. The wolf is one of them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,

Follow the Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, and add your voice using #SaveTogether.

Comments

  1. Gretchen Davis
    Yellowstone
    January 10, 10:36 pm

    What Beauty you captured. This is one of my life time dreams, to photograph Yellowstone Wildlife and wilderness in the Bush. Great job! The photos are Stunning!!

  2. Lee Rockwell
    Northern CA
    January 6, 6:56 pm

    Nice Job!!! If I could carry the weight (I am an elder female recovering from multiple surgeries & accidents) and have lived alone in many wild places most often with a canine companion. I have a little Aussie rescue who presents like a wolf. In fact I was slightly bummed when ‘they’ changed the wolf icon on my iphone to a more realistic looking wolf cause I used to use it as my little rescue’s symbol…

    I’d love to have been right there with you! I am all about wildlife and wild places and my fondest passion is for Wolves! Thanx!

  3. Iain Scott Mallory
    United Kingdom
    January 6, 7:19 am

    What would I do? Hell, having the chance to spend a year or more photographing Yellowstone is a dream, to do it for National Geographic…….awesome. Not going to call Ronan lucky however, talent and dedication got him where he is, wonderful stuff!

  4. Lilette Walker
    San Jose, California
    January 4, 4:16 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful article.

  5. Lilette Walker
    San Jose, California
    January 4, 4:08 pm

    Thank you national geographic for this wonderful article. These wolves are so beautiful and Ronan Donovan’s favorite shot of the alpha female and her two pups is amazing!! First I saw just one wolf then the rest of the picture slowly emerged. I’m grateful that there are still wild wolves and amazing people like Donovan to show them to us.