In 1978 at age 25, Michael “Nick” Nichols drove west from his Alabama home and made his first nature photographs in America’s national parks.
He went on to push geographic and photographic boundaries for nearly four decades, creating more than 25 National Geographic stories throughout his career. His documentation of explorer Michael Fay’s 1,200-mile expedition across central Africa helped create 13 national parks in Gabon. His work with Jane Goodall highlighted the plight of endangered chimpanzees. And his robot-cam images of Serengeti lions earned him the prestigious “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” title from the Natural History Museum of London.
For his final National Geographic assignment, he came full circle to Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, which sparked countless others on an international scale.
“Yellowstone is one of the wonders of the world,” says Nichols. “The park was made to protect the extreme thermal features, but it’s also one of the few places in the lower 48 states where grizzly bears and wolves have a chance to exist.”
Created in 1872, Yellowstone contains its famous geysers and hot springs. But the park’s boundaries were not drawn to accommodate the needs of wildlife. Bison are killed as they leave the park to access the best grasslands. Wolves are shot when they prey on livestock grazing on adjacent national forest lands. And people have a low tolerance for close encounters with grizzly bears wherever they roam.
Embedded in the park for more than a year, Nichols served as the field leader for a team of photographers covering various subjects. The mission: help people understand that for the greater Yellowstone ecosystem to function, the park and the national forest lands surrounding it have to be managed cohesively.
“My mission as a photographer has always been to celebrate and help people understand the wild,” says Nichols. “How can you possibly manage wildlife in Yellowstone if you don’t have the same management philosophy in the national forests—and if you’re lucky, the private lands—in the three states surrounding it? If we can’t set an example of living with predators and bison in Yellowstone, how can we expect people in places like Africa’s Serengeti to live with lions and elephants?”
While land and wildlife management challenges were the focus of the story, the photographic challenges made Yellowstone his most difficult assignment to date. How to go beyond the cliché photos and make compelling images of one of the most photographed places in the world?
“Guess what? It’s all hard work,” he says. “There is no magic.”
To photograph grizzly bears, his team worked in partnership with a park biologist to place camera traps at a remote pool reached by a grueling trek through thick brush and downed trees. Their dogged efforts paid off with images revealing a parade of bears bathing and interacting. Nichols surmised that the bears were fattening up for hibernation by raiding nearby squirrel caches of nutritious whitebark pine nuts, getting dirty in the process, and using the pool to clean up. The resulting images of the “Bear Bathtub” allow intimate insights of bear behavior undisturbed by human presence.
In the more accessible areas of the park, human presence is impacting both wildlife and the visitor experience. Nichols photographed automobile traffic jams, “selfie” crowds at scenic overlooks and eager mobs too close to animals. Is Yellowstone being loved to death? While managing people, wildlife and land is an ongoing challenge, Nichols sees hope in realizing the park is actually better today than it’s been for much of its history. In the early 1900s, park officials killed all the wolves, introduced invasive fish and fed bears garbage. Today, managers are working to restore a naturally functioning ecosystem.
“Our country invented national parks. Yellowstone and all our parks are unbelievable. We have to take care of them.”