A Prairie Photo Companion

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

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Dave Showalter covered thousands of miles to create Prairie Thunder: The Nature of Colorado’s Great Plains. From the Wyoming border south, he photographed the Colorado prairie through all of the seasons for four years. Above: Autumn cottonwoods over Lake Ladora, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Scenes of the famed Rocky Mountains epitomize the Colorado landscape. Jagged, snowcappedpeaks in winter, yellow aspen trees in fall, blooming wildflowers in spring and yearlong wildlife sightings make for the kind of iconic shots that fill photography bookshelves. But one photographer has turned his attention elsewhere in the state. Trading steep, rocky terrain for flat grasslands, Dave Showalter captures the essence of Colorado’s eastern plains in his book Prairie Thunder: The Nature of Colorado’s Great Plains. More than an attempt to show the subtle beauty of a region where few rarely spend time, Showalter joined forces with an army of scientists, conservation groups and private landowners to complete the project. In doing so, his work has become part of a major effort to protect the Colorado grasslands.

This ecosystem is considered one of the most endangered in the world, yet less than one percent of North America’s shortgrass prairie is protected. In the United States, it’s an area that encompasses 100,000 acres, stretching east of the Rocky Mountains from Nebraska, through Colorado, Kansas and southward, through the high plains of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. So consider the magnitude of what’s happening in Colorado alone, where about 40 percent of the state’s shortgrass prairie remains, with much of it degraded because agriculture, rural development and urbanization have fragmented the land. Grassland birds have shown steeper and more consistent declines than any other group of vertebrate animals in North America.

Winter Sunrise
Winter sunrise, Boulder County

Prairie Thunder After learning about the challenges facing this region, Showalter set out to capture the splendor of a place that, at first glance, strikes some as just plain boring. For non-prairie lovers, views of flat, windswept landscapes may not inspire the same sense of wonder as dramatic mountaintops or endless oceans. But Showalter’s photographs reveal a vibrant, colorful world that possesses a delicate, yet often overlooked beauty that changes dramatically from season to season. Woven between the photographs, he describes the challenges facing the Colorado prairie, the action being taken now to preserve it and what still needs to be done.

Many people consider the plains to be drive-through country says Showalter. So one of my first missions was to show their beauty, the flora and fauna, because if it’s not beautiful people won’t take an interest. Gary Graham [Executive Director of Audubon Colorado] said to me, “Your job is to make people love the plains,” and that’s what I tried to do in every shot. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, I’ve trekked in Nepal, and I’d rate the grasslands among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

On his visual trek across Colorado’s eastern half, Showalter followed the cycles of the prairie for four years, covering more than 30,000 miles. He shot thousands of photographs, from blinds, his truck, a small airplane, the plains, and canyon and river overlooks. Tracking the seasons was vital to his work because of how quickly the terrain would change. Native grasses that appeared thin and overgrazed in the spring would burst into thick, lush fields in August after a monsoon. Showalter found that if he missed just a few weeks, he’d have to become reacquainted with the land all over again because things changed just that fast.

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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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Some of Showalter’s best wildlife images came after hours of sitting in a blind. The trick was gaining access to photograph some of these animals because about 90 percent of this land is privately owned. Showalter would call up ranchers to tell them about the project and they would invite him out. Above: A northern harrier in flight, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

By working closely with Arsenal biologists and participating in field studies, Showalter gradually learned more about the issues facing the grasslands. Through this initial partnership, he eventually hooked up with Audubon Colorado, which has endorsed the book, The Nature Conservancy and a consortium of other conservation groups, government agencies and private landowners that are working to restore the land as a sanctuary for a variety of animals, ranging from bald eagles to bison. Thanks to the Shortgrass Prairie Initiative, a joint effort to counterbalance future habitat loss from transportation improvements by protecting large chunks of prairie, a series of three voluntary land preservation agreements are designed to protect tens of thousands of acres. Showalter says it’s an exciting time to be a part of what’s happening, and he’s looking forward to continuing his work.

Comanche Snow Lone Tree

Left: Early winter snow, Comanche National Grassland. Right: Windswept hillsides, Jefferson County.

“I’m not done with the grasslands by any stretch,” says Showalter. “It’s important for photographers who have a conservation mindset to connect with people who are working to save these areas and photograph them. You have to pair pretty pictures with conservation work. Getting involved with these groups is the higher purpose of nature photography.”

For more information about Prairie Thunder: The Nature of Colorado’s Great Plains, visit www.prairie-thunder.com. To see more of Dave Showalter’s photography, visit www.daveshowalter.com.