In early 2014, wildlife ecologist Arthur Middleton and photographer Joe Riis boarded a helicopter in the foothills of the Absaroka Mountains, in northwest Wyoming. Middleton had hired the pilot for collaring elk—an intense and somewhat absurd process that requires flying above a herd so “muggers” can shoot some of the animals with nets, enabling a ground team to tackle and fit them with GPS collars then release them.
Middleton and Riis planned to use the GPS data to follow and document the herd’s migration to its summer range, 50 miles away in the remote southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. But first, they wanted to see how tough traveling along the migration route might be. The first leg goes up and over Needle Mountain, a massive crag of rock that geologist Arthur Hague described a century ago as “the most imposing single occurrence of any intrusive mass in the Absaroka Range.” Neither Middleton nor Riis had seen the mountain in person.
“The pilot didn’t even want to go close to the summit,” Riis said. “We were, like, halfway up—I couldn’t even see the top of it, from a helicopter.”
“We basically saw it and said, ‘Holy … Jesus,’” Middleton said.
Figuring out how to traverse Needle Mountain proved only one of many obstacles Middleton and Riis would face in an ambitious quest to tell the story of elk migrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the roughly 20 million acres of mostly undeveloped land with Yellowstone National Park at its heart. Over the past two summers, the duo rode 1,500 miles on horseback through the Absarokas, following the elk’s path to experience their travel firsthand.