Geoff Holland–What motivated your career as a wildlife photographer?
Tom Mangelsen—Well, it goes back to my youngest years. I was born and raised in Grand Island, in South-Central Nebraska, not far from the Platte River. That probably had the biggest influence on what I do today. My father loved to hunt and fish and took my three brothers and me with him whenever we could go. I became the most avid son to go with my dad. The Platte River was only 20 miles away and my dad had bought a no-longer-attended one-room schoolhouse and had it moved to the south bank of the river which became the “cabin”. We spent much of our fall seasons there, hunting ducks, geese, and pheasants. Most of the days in the duck blind we just spent observing wildlife, the passing seasons, and the ways of the river. Waterfowl or pheasant was a food staple probably having two meals a week of some wild game. For me, summers were spent tromping up and down the Platte, going on adventures with binoculars and a bow and arrow, catching tadpoles and frogs, and doing a lot of fishing. My grandmother would pickle and preserve the carp my brother, Bill, and I pitch forked during late summer as the river dried up from too much diversion of water for agriculture. We ran naked as “jay birds” Mom said, with pitchforks in hand spearing carp that were running the shallows. Mom and Dad called me the little “River Rat”. Grandma Toni, by her expressions, I think “loved” getting the burlap bags full of carp to pickle. Either that or she was just being a sweet and understanding grandmother! Those early years were formative for me; always wanting to be outside watching birds and other wild things.
GH–What personal qualities are most important in capturing the moments that make your work so exceptional?
TM—Well, to go back to those early days. I hadn’t really thought about what I was really going to do. I knew I loved wildlife and being outdoors. But I didn’t buy a camera until 1969, when I finished undergraduate school at Doane College, a small liberal arts school in Crete, Nebraska. When I was at the cabin observing flocks of ducks, geese, and cranes, maybe in fog or snowstorm, and see deer running across the river I thought, somebody should paint that sky; somebody should paint those trees and birds. I suddenly realized that maybe I could photograph those moments myself, just for fun, not for any long-term career.
I was 23 or so when I bought my first camera from a friend who bought it at the PX store in Guam on his home from Vietnam. It was a Pentax SLR and included several lenses. That was my camera kit for several years. Then, I decided to go to graduate school at the University of Nebraska. I was a student of one of the greatest ornithologists that ever lived, Dr. Paul Johnsgard. He was considered the world authority on waterfowl, ducks, geese, and swans. He took me under his wing as a graduate student. Quick story: When I initially approached him, he said he only took on a few students. He looked at my transcripts, and said, “Well, your grades really aren’t up to snuff. I only take straight-A students,” and though I was reaching, I said, “I’ve won the world’s goose-calling championship. Twice!” I added quickly, “I also have a cabin on the Platte River”. I don’t think he cared much about the goose calling, but he did like the idea that I had a cabin on the Platte River because that’s what he had always dreamed of. Paul said, “We do, occasionally, make exceptions.” From that dubious beginning, over fifty years of friendship and collaboration followed. Just shy of his 89th birthday a couple of years ago, Paul took his last breath as I held his hand.
I returned from my cabin in Nebraska recently. Somewhere around 650,000 sandhill cranes use the Platte Valley every March as a stopover for food and to put on fat reserves for their long journeys to their nesting grounds in the Far North. There were also approximately 15 million snow geese and other waterfowl using the river and feeding in the fallow cornfields. The Platte in spring is one of the Earth’s most magical sights and sounds! I return there every spring and, for the last 18 years before COVID, Dr. Jane Goodall has joined me at the cabin every spring to witness this bird phenomenon. The fact that Jane has gone all those years puts in perspective the worldwide appreciation of the spectacle. Comparable in the bird world to the wildebeest migration in the African Serengeti.
All those early experiences motivated me. In addition to being an academic, Paul Johnsgard was an avid photographer. He taught me a lot about animal behavior, mammalogy, ecology, and photography. I’ve been very fortunate to have been surrounded by great people like him, Jane Goodall, and Mardy Murie, who used to live across the Snake River from where I live now in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Mardy was considered the grandmother of conservation. She was great fun to be with, a great storyteller, and a great conservationist.
There are a few key things that I think are important for wildlife photography. Being a good observer, watching animals and birds, and being aware of what their next move might be. It was also valuable to learn about traditional arts like painting and sculpture; to learn about composition, light, and texture. And, of course, the camera, the photo technology. I’m the least technical person on Earth, but I know how to work my cameras. Patience and persistence are key. Patience is probably the one attribute that I have that is maybe above average. I’ve observed a lot of people get antsy and leave a potentially good situation before I do. Often, they are right, and it turns out not worth it. But, sometimes, staying those extra minutes, hours, days or weeks pays off. So, patience is a big thing.
GH–Your recently published collection of images, Seasons of Yellowstone, majestically captures America’s greatest park, along with its companion, Grand Teton Park. What makes them so special to you?
TM—I loved growing up in Nebraska, which had an abundance of wide-open spaces and amazing diversity, and large numbers of wildlife when I was young. Unfortunately, much of the prairies that the wildlife depended on have been plowed for agricultural use. When I was staying at my cabin on the Platte River in Nebraska for the past three weeks, I only saw two pheasants. When young I would have seen more than fifty. I was so excited to see one and I realized just how sad that was. Now, they’re like seeing a whooping crane, so rare; same with cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, skunks, raccoons, opossums, and birdlife in general. They have mostly disappeared!
Compared to when I grew up near Grand Island, and in the Sandhill country outside Ogallala, in western Nebraska, the landscape has literally been transformed. To provide irrigation the sand hills have been flattened by bulldozers or irrigated by pivot sprinkler systems that can crawl up almost any hill to water crops. Instead of prairie grasses waving in the breeze as far as one can see, it’s now tilled fields or grown crops. With such intensive farming, pesticides, and herbicides, there remains only a fraction of native grassland left since my boyhood that’s not been plowed or turned into cornfields, soybean, or wheat fields. With the loss of nesting habitat and protection from predators, Nebraska has lost much of its nature and biodiversity. Plus, Nebraska has its own share of urban sprawl as has most of the rest of our country.
I first went to the mountains when I was seven years old to visit my uncle, Bernard, in Estes Park, Colorado, with my mom, dad, and three brothers. For someone who had never seen mountains, the Rockies were very exciting and left a lasting impression on me. I went fly fishing for the first time with my uncle, and we drove around Rocky Mountain National Park just outside Estes where, also for the first time, I saw elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and other wildlife.
Over the years my dream of moving to the mountains grew stronger. I was restless and felt the time was right to leave Nebraska. So, after the spring semester, I packed up my things and headed for Colorado.
I spent most of the following eight years in the mountains west of Boulder and lived near Nederland, in an old mining shack, with no electricity or running water. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I was happy living in the mountains being a free spirit, and basically living as my few neighbor hippies were. I had a black Lab and an English Setter, a raccoon, and a garden. Those years were formative in many ways. This was the early 70s, the war in Vietnam was raging and the political landscape changed forever.
At the Arctic Alpine Institute near Nederland, where I was taking a class on mountain ecology, I met Bert Kempers, a filmmaker who was doing educational and animal behavioral films. He asked if I was looking for work and invited me to work for him as a cinematographer. Bert had seen my still photography and said he could teach me to be a filmmaker. He took me to Yellowstone and the Teton Parks to do animal behavior films for the University of Colorado. Yellowstone and Teton Park were full of wildlife, and I fell in love with them.
I pulled up stakes in Colorado and moved to Jackson Hole. It wasn’t just the grandeur of the Tetons and the incredible landscape; it was also the people and the amazing biodiversity of wildlife in Yellowstone and the Tetons that brought me to the Jackson Hole Valley.
GH–How have Yellowstone and the Tetons changed since you first visited them, and what makes you hopeful that they will one day be restored to their full resilience?
TM—The main problem we have is there are just too damn many of us humans. We don’t have enough renewable resources to continue down this same road. Obviously, the worst threat now is climate change and the way that it’s affecting everything. From the Arctic to Antarctica, from the oceans to the mountains. This year, in the winter of 2023, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone had record snowfall. However, last summer was one of the driest. I had never seen Jackson Lake so low and nearly dry. Even with the record snow, they say the lake will still not fill this year.
In Nebraska, as I mentioned earlier, rabbits used to be very common. I remember counting 123 jackrabbits in a newly cut ten-acre alfalfa field near the cabin when I was in high school. I haven’t seen a jackrabbit in Nebraska in 10 years, maybe longer. More corn and soybeans mean fewer native prairies and hedgerows which decreases the protective cover and nesting habitat for all wildlife including rabbits. Without those, you don’t have coyotes or foxes. The loss of biodiversity just in my lifetime has been phenomenal. Yes, in spring, you can still see 650,000 sandhill cranes and 15 million snow geese and other waterfowl, but they’re just stopping over for a month, then they migrate north. We as Americans are so fortunate to have numerous National Parks and public lands but there are simply not enough of them, and they too are being threatened by us humans. On the outskirts of Yellowstone and Teton Park, everything’s getting built up; more subdivisions, more urban sprawl, and more giant McMansions are being built at a record pace. Smaller buffer zones, more loss of habitat.
The states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are archaic in their “game management” programs. The stewardship of our public lands like the National Forests and its wildlife by the Bureau of Land Management is not managed for the good of all American citizens nor what’s best for the wildlife or the landscape. The lands are more often managed for the extraction of coal, gas, and oil. Grazing rights for cattle and sheep are sold for pennies on the dollar compared to grazing on private land. Wild horses are removed so more cattle and sheep can graze. To protect the rancher’s herds and flocks, public money pours into the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services (the predator exterminators) to kill cougars, coyotes, and wolves by any means.
Wolves have killed only a few humans worldwide (most deaths were in fact from rabies) in the last 20 years. In contrast, guns kill far more people per day (approximately 110). In the US it’s all about money and politics of course. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) and other agencies say they are mandated to provide “hunting opportunities” for their constituents. I grew up hunting and have no real issues with ethical, respectful, and humane hunting to put food on the table. However, the WGFD doesn’t differentiate. To “kill predators for fun” or any animal just for “fun”, because you bought a license to kill or just because you can is very sad. What has happened to our American culture and the caring and compassion for other animals? Recently, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, their governors and representatives have announced that they are again petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to remove the Endangered Species classification and its protection for grizzly bears so their constituents can kill them for “sport”. I have been fighting the delisting and hunting of grizzlies for years and have spent 16 years documenting a special bear named 399 (the number given to her by researchers who trapped, collared, and tagged her). She’s 27 years old now and has given birth to 17 cubs. She has a huge fan club of hundreds of thousands from all over the world. She is the most famous grizzly to have ever lived.
If only a hunter or agency person could witness the joy and excitement in the children’s faces when seeing a bear, I wonder if they would still be so calloused to pull the trigger and steal that child’s experience and the thousands of children and adults after her?
As citizens, we must speak out and make it more and more difficult for the State’s WGFD and USFWS to reverse grizzly bear endangered species protection.
Black bears who are legally hunted and killed are often chummed in by baited barrels of stinking road kills, donuts, and rotten food. It’s so pathetic. Shooting a black bear over a stinking barrel of bait would be like shooting your couch. It would likely be similar for grizzlies if they are delisted, excepted baited by using gut piles and carcasses of legally killed elk and deer.
GH–You’ve spent a lot of time in Africa over the years, making a marvelous record of the range of lifeforms that live there. Can you talk about one moment in Africa that stood out among many moments of capturing images?
TM—Generally speaking, my favorite place in the world is the Serengeti ecosystem, which goes from Tanzania to Kenya’s Masai Mara. Some predators are residents, and others will follow their prey, the five million wildebeest and zebras. It’s a phenomenal sight, and one may see a half million animals in a day. The herds are always on the move, following the rains and fresh grasses. Because of climate change and the fickleness of the rains, the annual great migration has changed. When I was in Samburu National Park in northern Kenya this past summer, some places were absolutely parched. It was a desert-like habitat, the mammals and gazelles were thin, and the elephants were dying. One of the most striking views on the dry Samburu River were the elephant mothers digging with their feet and trunks to reach water three feet below the sand. Then they would suck up water in their trunks, spray it into their mouths and then spray it on their little calves to drink. The calves were very thirsty and kept trying to reach the water with their tiny trunks. The worried mothers kept pushing the calves away lest they fall into the holes and get trapped. Just watching that kind of behavior is remarkable.
Kenya has more bird species than we have in North America, which is phenomenal. My favorite continent on Earth is Africa. I can’t pick one really special moment over another. There’s just been too many.
GH–You just returned from a long stay in India, which is now the most populous nation on Earth. How has the human footprint impacted India’s remaining wildlife, and how did it impact your time there?
TM—My first and only trip to India before this recent one was 25 years ago, in 1998. On that first trip, I was with several friends, one of who was working on a National Geographic film about the endangered Bengal tigers in Kanha National Park. We were there for about five weeks. In 1998 there was a lot less human presence than now. There were few lodges then and fewer people. Now, 25 years later, there is a lot more human development, and the parks have the necessity of more regimented visitation. Now, it’s more people, more development, and fewer buffer zones. Kanha is small compared to Yellowstone and the human encroachment is more visible. Tigers have large territories and need space. Fortunately, for now, the last strongholds of the Bengal tiger like Kanha, which were once the tiger hunting grounds for kings and maharajas, remain protected because of a few far-sighted people such as Kailash Sankhala in India and the many caring advocates who recognize the tiger’s value.
GH–You have captured many iconic moments. The one that stands out for me is the cover of your book, Images of Nature. It’s the brown bear in the falls. That grizzly is about to snag a salmon. Can you describe what it took to be in that moment to capture that image?
TM—It was a bit serendipitous. It was early July 1988 and I was working on a documentary film about sandhill cranes. The idea of the documentary was to film the cranes in places along their migration route, which included Prince William Sound in Alaska. We arrived late afternoon in a small fishing boat to the camp. Several hundred yards out along the shoreline were millions of shorebirds, whirling in the wind. Their white undersides flashed like diamonds in the late evening sun. Flocks of cranes passed overhead calling to their kind grazing in the upper mud flats. Against the backdrop of glacier-covered mountains, it was a spectacular sight. Unfortunately, for the next five days, it poured rain with no breaks.
On the sixth day, wet and weary, with little film footage to show for our efforts we decided to give it up. On the Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage, I thumbed through the airline’s magazine. There was a story with photos about Brooks Falls and the brown bears that come to fish on the spawning salmon. I already knew about Brooks Falls from researching it for a potential film several years earlier. There were already a lot of bear films and thousands of still photos from Brooks Falls. I thought maybe it was an ‘all been done’ kind of thing and dropped the idea. But I looked more closely at one of the photos in the magazine that showed a dozen bears spread out around the falls with one big male waiting at the top as several sockeye salmon whizzed past him. I wondered if it would be possible to get an extreme close-up of just the head and shoulders of a bear catching a salmon in his mouth. Although I had seen thousands of photos of bears fishing at Brooks Falls, I had never seen that image. Maybe it couldn’t be done. But I was intrigued.
Shortly after deplaning in Anchorage, I phoned the Katmai National Park office. I told the ranger I would like to come and photograph the bears at Brooks. He asked if I had a camping permit or a room in the lodge? I said no. He said, “You need to have a spot, this is the height of bear season.” Then I said, “Is there anything at all?” He replied, “Hold on… let me look. Well, actually, there is one open camping spot. It’s just off the trail the bears use along the edge of the lake and nobody wants it. But it’s a legal campsite.” I said, “I’ll take it.” So, I bought some food, a sleeping bag, and a small tent and flew to the village of King Salmon and onto Brooks in a float plane the next morning.
On arrival, I set up camp and then walked about a half mile to the falls. On the bank of the river was a small raised wooden platform ten feet or so above ground, theoretically out of a bear’s reach. The main falls were about a hundred yards away and there were a dozen or so bears using different fishing styles. Some leaping into the stream, some waiting patiently, and some snorkeling. One monster, named Diver, simply dove to the bottom of the pool and scavenged dead salmon. Obviously, a very successful strategy looking at his belly nearly touching the ground! Then there were two large male bears standing at the top of the falls fifty feet apart, like pointing dogs frozen in place, waiting for a sockeye to leap the falls close enough to catch. Very soon, all hell broke loose, huge roars, swatting and splashing, and they were fighting tooth and claw. Apparently, the furthest bear decided his neighbor was in a better fishing spot and wanted it. The resident proclaimed his ownership and won. I had never seen bears fight and I was not only stunned but shaking! The loser bear sauntered into the willows while the victor returned to his fishing hole and assumed his position as if nothing had happened. That, I said to myself, is what I came for!
To get upstream to their spawning grounds the salmon need to leap the falls. If they make it past the gang of bears below the falls they still have to get up to a lot of speed to make it over the ten-foot falls and then be very lucky not to end up in the jaws of the bear at the top!
After I returned home and the film had been processed, I looked through my slides from Brooks Falls, not knowing if I had captured anything worthwhile. The fish leaped so quickly; it was impossible to know.
I pre-visualize a lot. Most of the time when I pre-visualize something, I don’t get it. But for me, it’s like dreaming of something, maybe it’s beyond hope but if I don’t dream or wonder “what if” I’ll never get it! I must be in that moment, and I have to be prepared. I still screw up plenty, but, once in a while, I’ll get it right. Almost every day it rained at least some if not all day. However, one day the salmon were running, the sun was shining, and a bear caught a salmon in his mouth! It’s the timing. That quarter inch or so between the bear’s mouth and the salmon is important. It does take patience and skill and, I think, pre-visualization.
GH–Our world is headed toward a very uncertain future. What is needed to culturally shift to a course that is life-affirming and sustainable?
TM—That’s a big question, isn’t it?
Personally, I think we are much worse off than we were 25 years ago, as far as U.S. and International politics and the environment goes. Climate change of course is at the top of all the threats the Earth faces. Indeed, there have been major cultural shifts in America, and not in a good way. Ugliness, fear, and hate have replaced ethics, honesty, and integrity!
In my opinion, the reason why a lot of the hate, division, ugliness, fearfulness, and loss of integrity, honesty, and compassion for others has happened, one needs to look no further than Donald J. Trump and his cult followers. It remains unimaginable to me just how many Americans are still enthralled with someone who is obviously a moron with zero scruples and has been corrupt all his adult life. When any single politician, on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C. votes for the party line every time regardless of right or wrong and not what might be best for their constituents or our country, they are not courageous, only cowards! We as a democracy have lost our way. What happened to courage? John McCain had it. Trump called him a loser! What happened to ethics and morality? Was January 6th ethical or moral on any grounds? Or was it just another day at the Capitol? Those politicians who believe that it was just like any other day should be expelled from Congress for not protecting the Constitution and American lives, and for being intellectually, morally, and ethically corrupt.
How can we as Americans continue to support assault weapons and weak gun laws with the daily multiple massacres of our children, simply because so many, mostly Republican lawmakers, won’t let go of the support they get from the National Rifle Association?
It seems obvious to me that without a massive mind shift in the American psyche, towards tolerance for others and the support of honest, ethical, moral, and intelligent politicians we will continue down this dark rabbit hole. We need to fight harder against racism, antisemitism, and all injustices! We can never accept the crazies, their conspiracy theories, and their desire to bring down America.
GH–You’ve met many distinguished people over your lifetime of work. Who comes to mind when you are thinking about one with a message that all the world should embrace?
TM—Of course, there are thousands who are fighting the good fight to save the Earth across the planet. The list is long but there just aren’t enough in my opinion to save it. The spoilers are many and they are empowered and driven by money, status, power, and control. I believe the single most important person with messages the world needs to hear is Dr. Jane Goodall. We need her messages of hope now more than ever. Her four reasons for hope are:
- The amazing human intellect.
- The resilience of nature.
- The power of young people.
- The indomitable human spirit.
Jane has so much confidence in young people to help the Earth. In 1991, she started the Roots and Shoots program whose mission is: To foster respect and compassion for all living things, to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs, and to inspire each individual to take action to make the world a better place for animals, people, and the environment.
There are currently more than 10,000 Roots and Shoots groups spread over more than 60 countries and involving more than 1,000,000 young people. We need more leaders like Jane! She just turned 89 years old, yet she has the stamina, passion, and drive to continue her mission and speak out for the planet. Jane travels over 300 days a year crossing the globe to spread her message. To continue her mission after she is gone, she is raising funds for the Jane Goodall Legacy Fund. She wants to have her message carried on into the future, for as long as people can keep the message going. I have known Jane for almost twenty-five years. She has been my inspiration, supporter, and dear friend.
Many lose hope and become depressed during these days of world turmoil. During her lifetime, Jane has experienced the worst of humanity, living in London during WWII as a child, hiding under the kitchen table as the bombs went off, yet she continues to have hope. I am less hopeful at times and often in need of a “Jane fix”. She says, “We need to have hope, Tom. We need to keep going, we need to keep fighting the good fight.”
GH–What kind of world would you like to see going forward, and how do we become that future?
TM—I would like to see a world at peace, not at war. A world of people who have compassion for others no matter who they are. A world full of wonder and respect for nature. Nature can heal many wounds caused by fear, hate, anger, and rage. Too many humans have lost their connection with nature. Kids especially have a “nature deficit”.
Teaching kids about the magic of the natural world and turning their interest from their iPad, iPhones, or video war games to a walk in the woods would help. I go back to politics and integrity in our politics. You look at Clarence Thomas right now. What kind of integrity is that for a Supreme Court Justice? It’s all about money and power. What do kids see? Adults behaving badly and getting away with it. I wish there were more real leaders like Yvon Chouinard, his wife, Malinda, and their company Patagonia. Yvon and Malinda are friends and neighbors. They just gave away their multi-billion-dollar Patagonia company to help save the Earth by attacking climate change.
I saw Yvon at our local pizza place recently. I thanked him for his incredible generosity, leadership, and courage. Yvon replied, “Tom, you know, my life hasn’t changed a bit. I gave away some money. Hopefully, it will help. I’m living the same life as before.” If only more people and leaders thought like him! Using one’s hard-earned fortune for good. Choosing to use their money and power for the greater good. There are so many billionaires in America who could do the same. People need to wake up and get involved, especially young people, who are becoming our future leaders. Time is running out. Good people need to stand up now. They need to become voices against climate change and speak out against all injustices wherever they may be occurring. Making things right is going to take a lot of real change. I may not be around to see it, but it sure would be wonderful to see nature at its best again.
You can view Tom’s work at www.mangelsen.com. You can also find Tom on Instagram and Facebook under Thomas D Mangelsen.