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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Prairie Photo Companion


One Colorado photographer takes aim at the plains in a new photo conservation book

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Western Rattlesnake
A Western rattlesnake, Plains Conservation Center
"You don’t have those big mountains out there as a reference to catch all that light, so I really paid attention to how the light fell across the land", he says. And understanding that wind was the enemy, it really was a matter of carefully tracking the seasons and understanding that not only are there distinct seasonal changes, but that things changed a lot within each season. In the spring, something is blooming every week it seems.

With such a diverse ecosystem to capture, one of the biggest challenges was getting all of the shots that he wanted. From close-ups of blooming bluebells and Indian paintbrush flowers to extreme wide-angles showing off the immensity of the landscape, Showalter would head out in his truck, which he fondly describes as his ‚ giant camera bag, carrying two 35mm Nikon camera bodies, film and digital, along with lenses ranging from 18mm to 840mm. He kept a 600mm lens mounted next to him at all times just in case a pronghorn fawn or a red fox showed up out of nowhere.

The challenge of shooting in the kind of wind he encountered can’t be understated. In some instances, he’d position himself behind his truck or a hill and use the available windbreak to stabilize the camera and tripod. But if the winds reached above 75 mph, sometimes it was just impossible to take pictures.

Picketwire Road
Comanche National Grassland
"The wind made grass and flower images a challenge at times," says Showalter. Occasionally, I had very poor flat light and used the higher ISO settings on my digital camera to capture an image that only presented itself one time. That’s one of the huge advantages with digital‚ you can usually salvage a decent image, even in bad situations.

The best wildlife moments usually happened after he had spent hours sitting in the blind. This is exactly how he got a shot of a northern harrier in flight. One shot for spending a morning in the blind, Showalter recalls.

From the blind, he also was able to watch and photograph some 80 or so prairie chickens perform an intense mating ritual that involves a lot of strutting and loud‚ "woo-woo" sounds to attract females. He watched this display for more than three hours and, in doing so, he also witnessed firsthand the upshot of a conservation effort gone well.

Showalter explains that throughout the 1980s, the greater prairie chicken was in danger statewide because so much of its native grassland habitat was converted to cropland. With support from private landowners, the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed the Conservation Reserve Program to reestablish native prairie. As part of that effort, greater prairie chickens were reintroduced and they’re now flourishing in Colorado. The cooperation of private landowners is critical to how conservation efforts succeed here because roughly 90 percent of this land is privately held. Local ranchers who welcomed Showalter on their land made many of the photographs possible.

Western Rattlesnake
A red fox in late winter coat
"What’s so overwhelming about this experience is how willing people were to help me," he says. "I called up ranchers to tell them about the project. Or I’d sit at their kitchen table and we’d have a nice talk, and they let me on their land."

At the heart of the book, though, is Showalter’s work with the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. He has been photographing Colorado and the West for more than 15 years, with a lifelong interest in and passion for the natural world. He and his wife, Marla, are big-time adventurers. They have climbed to the summit of some of the world’s most famous mountain peaks, along with 32 of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners. In search of a project that would keep him close to home and expand his photographic horizons beyond what he was used to shooting, he called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, met with Manager Dean Rundle and became the official photographer for them. This refuge was farmland turned into a chemical weapons factory during World War II for the U.S. Army. Postwar, the Army leased the land to private companies that produced commercial pesticides. During the Cold War, the Army started producing chemical weapons again. In the 1980s, biologists discovered it was home to a large number of bald eagles, which led to the discovery of other healthy wildlife populations, including deer, prairie dogs, coyotes and many bird species.

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