Freedom to Move: Living Among the Greater Yellowstone Migrations

I love to think about the ever-evolving mixture of science, adventure, and conservation in the West. Old-school science is being combined with current-day media to reach the people that care—and who didn’t care. That’s my gig. I’m trained in wildlife biology and not in photography, but work as a photographer to tell wildlife and science stories. Over the years, I’ve worked with Nat Geo on stories in different places, such as frogs in the Tepui Mountains of South America, pumas in the High Andes, and Gobi bears in the Mongolian desert. But my primarily focus is with ungulate (hooved animals such as pronghorn or elk) migrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Most of the past seven years of my life has been spent living in the woods of western Wyoming.

Pronghorns crossing a river on their migration; Photograph by Joe Riis
Pronghorns crossing a river on their migration in Wyoming; Photograph by Joe Riis

Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is 2.2million acres, our first national park, and a real gem. Furthermore, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is a dozen times that size—some 27 million acres of land and air. In a lot of ways, it’s the far-reaching winter ranges of migratory ungulates that define the outer edges of the GYE. The wildness of the core of YNP is dependent on the far-reaching ranch lands—it’s all one system and the migrations are the lifeblood.

Mule Deer Migration Project, Western Wyoming: Photograph by Joe Riis  Red Desert to Hoback (RD2H) Migration 2012-2014 Photographer - Joe Riis Wildlife Ecologist - Dr. Hall Sawyer
Mule Deer Migration Project, Western Wyoming,
Red Desert to Hoback (RD2H) Migration
2012-2014; Photograph by Joe Riis

Each summer, thousands of elk, deer, and pronghorn move from the edges into the core of the system to feed and give birth. They also feed the predators like bears, wolves, and mountain lions. The cycle continues. And this migration cycle is what I try to show in photographs.

The pronghorn migrations; Photograph by Joe Riis
The pronghorn migration; Photograph by Joe Riis

From a storytelling perspective, there are three primary migrations that I’ve focused on: the Path of the Pronghorn migration from Grand Teton National Park to southwest Wyoming; the mule deer migration from the Red Desert to Hoback; and the Cody elk migration on the Absaroka front. Thousands of animals on the move.

The Adventurists blog series “Freedom to Move” is sponsored by Toyota TRD Pro, which provided a vehicle for this adventure.


  1. glenn martin
    tucson Az 85716
    July 9, 2015, 8:10 pm

    the human is the biggest predator the Earth and Star have ever created.To see the timidness of the running herds trying to avoid human contact.The one sightedness for the migration herds is the picture of this real earth survivial

  2. jeferson lacsa
    July 10, 2015, 3:10 am

    Why many animals they live in cold places

  3. Pat Bingham
    Tampa, Fl
    July 11, 2015, 11:24 am

    Wonderful work, Joe. I look forward to seeing your future pieces and longer duration. Keep it up!!

  4. Mike Phillips
    Stone Mountain, GA
    July 13, 2015, 5:47 pm

    Thanks to you Joe and others like you…for what you do.
    Hopefully many will learn to respect the animals and the
    earth as well from what you do!

  5. […] Freedom to Move: Living Among the… […]

  6. elizabethmargarida mendes de limamadanelo
    July 22, 2015, 1:49 pm

    Maravilhoso trabalho deste biólogo/fotógrafo!

  7. Phil Wagner
    Brookings, South Dakota
    July 26, 2015, 6:27 pm

    Great Work Joe, and for a great cause. We appreciate all the work and effort you put into these superior articles. We look forward to each edition of photos and information you produce.

  8. Sally Tyson-hall
    Portsmouth, Virginia
    April 30, 2016, 12:22 pm

    How do I get a job as his assistant??? What an awesome job to have.