It only takes one shot to win the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, and that’s all Zack Clothier got.
His image, “Grizzly Leftovers” involved months of work and elaborate equipment, plus great good fortune. The picture captures a shiny-eyed grizzly looking at the camera as its clawed paw advances toward a bull elk skeleton that’s been almost entirely stripped of meat.
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What it doesn’t show is the multiple trips to replace camera batteries in the trap until the hoped-for scene arrived, or the mayhem that resulted after the first shutter click startled the grizzly.
Clothier has spent about a decade in the Seeley-Swan area. He photographs wildlife, landscapes and other natural scenes for fine-art prints, and does some contract photography as well. His work with local conservation groups got him interested in camera traps as a way to document creatures either difficult or dangerous to photograph in person.
He found the bull elk carcass while cross-country skiing in the mountains near his home. Tracks in the snow indicated it was chased and killed by a wolf pack. There was enough meat left on the bones to predict the wolves might return, so Clothier set up an elaborate array of gear to catch the scene.
The main camera was housed in a protective case mounted on a tripod and camouflaged. Separate flash units were placed overhead in tree branches. He deployed a smaller game camera away from the site as an early-warning monitor.
“I didn’t want to walk up to the carcass with a bear on it,” Clothier said. “I checked it on the way in, and the first thing on it was a big grizzly walking by in the early morning. So I made a lot of noise before going in.”
Snowmelt had flooded the nearby creek and nearly swamped the camera setup. The grizzly’s antisocial attitude didn’t help matters.
“The first thing I noticed was the carcass had been pulled away from the camera,” Clothier said. “The creek was flooding and camera was few inches above the water line. It was trashed. The case was flipped up at the sky and the lens was covered with slobber from the bear. There were scratches on the case – bite marks.”
He checked the camera’s memory card. It was full of scavenger visits – pine martens, snowshoe hares, a fox – and then one last clear shot.
The image showed the grizzly peeking into the frame. The next frame was pointing at the sky.
The camera’s wide-angle lens caught a few disorienting views of the bear moving the carcass, gnawing its bones and trying unsuccessfully to grab the flash units in the trees. The only printable image was that last one.
“The first image was the griz peeking into the frame, and as soon as the camera went off he lunged,” Clothier said. “The next frame was pointing at the sky with some brown fur. I’d used a wide-angle lens, and you could see he dragged the carcass even further – you could still make him out, gnawing on the bones of the elk. He stood up to get to the flash going off while he was eating, but it was up so high he wasn’t able to reach it.”
He titled the image "Grizzly leftovers."