• March 10, 2015

Looking for Hungry Grizzlies—on Purpose

Drew Rush

Fall was in the air that September, and the grizzly bears I was attempting to photograph in the Beartooth Mountains were hungry, getting ready for their long winter’s sleep. A week had already gone by since the last time I had gotten anything close to a useable picture.

Waking up, making coffee, and telling myself that today would be the day I got the frame was my routine. Then out into the field to fix my camera traps, hiking from one to the next, and repeat.

Picture of photographer Drew Rush testing his camera traps in the forest, Wyoming
Drew Rush triggers one of his camera traps to make sure the lighting is working properly.

I walked along the edge of the lake to check on a recently placed trap, thinking about all of the problems that a bear creates as it raids stashes of pinecones buried by red squirrels for their winter reserves of food. A bear gorging itself on pine nuts doesn’t think twice about my tiny little camera that just might be in its way, and more often than not I would show up to check a site and find my camera traps destroyed by the ravenous bears.

Working with camera traps is a lesson in patience and guts. You have to be able to tell yourself that eventually it’s going to happen, and you have to have to perseverance to fix repeated problems while knowing that in all likelihood those problems are going to happen again.

Picture of a black bear inspecting a camera trap
Rush’s camera traps also attracted the attention of other animals, like this curious black bear. “The black bear sequence is a good example of bears investigating the cameras and inadvertently debilitating them, in this case by getting snot all over the lens,” he says.

At its simplest, the setup consists of a camera, a trigger, and the promise of disappointment. You do everything you can to make sure the camera box is securely positioned, that the animal will trigger the camera exactly where you expect it to, that the lighting you have meticulously placed to freeze the movement of feeding bears is perfect—only to find that either nothing had walked through it, a squirrel had chewed the cables, a dead branch had fallen and knocked over the camera box, or, as was happening most often, the traps had been destroyed by ravenous bears—and you didn’t get any pictures.

While checking my cameras that day, I had no interest in running into any of these bears as they filled their bellies, so I made as much noise as I could as I went, hollering and banging as a precaution to scare away any that might be nearby.

Suddenly a grizzly exploded in the thick brush just beyond the lake’s edge. She must not have heard me coming.

“Hey, hey!” I yelled at the top of my lungs as I stumbled in surprise. The brush was so thick that I could only hear her as she was crashing toward me, huffing and snapping her jaws. About 15 yards away, she turned and crashed through the woods in the opposite direction, right around the same time that I was finally able to get the safety off the trigger of my bear spray.

I walked backward the entire distance back to my four-wheeler, shaking, expecting to see her charge out of the brush again in my direction. Luckily I didn’t. My heart was beating out of my chest. I took the rest of that day off, my mind questioning what exactly I was doing here at 10,000 feet, going looking for grizzlies.

Picture of a grizzly bear digging in the snow near Yellowstone National Park.
A camera trap near Yellowstone National Park catches a grizzly bear stealing whitebark pine nuts from a squirrel’s cache. The nuts are an important food for the bears, a threatened species. The whitebark pines are, in turn, under threat by the mountain pine beetle, which destroys the trees.

Finally, in the first part of October, I get to a trap and it is intact. There’s fresh digging in front of the camera. I check the trap by triggering it … it works. I open the back of the camera box and press play, and to my surprise I’m greeted by an image of a grizzly digging and eating pine nuts. Got it.

Drew Rush photographed grizzly bears for an April 2015 National Geographic magazine story looking at the devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle on forests—and ecosystems—in the northwestern United States and Canada. He is also a recent National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee. You can follow Rush on his website and on Instagram.

You might also like this post about using camera traps to photograph big cats: Through Steve Winter’s Lens, Big Cats Step Into the Limelight

There are 46 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. backlinks
    October 15, 2015

    m1Ke1T I appreciate you sharing this article post.Thanks Again. Great.

  2. chandana senadheera
    March 30, 2015

    great job Drew

  3. Leona
    March 30, 2015

    Amazing…beautiful…inspirational photography

  4. saeed boroumand
    March 30, 2015

    Great article & awesome pictures

  5. ron bass
    March 19, 2015

    Well done. I live in B.C. We allow trophy hunting of grizzly bears here…Shameful.

  6. Jean nicholson
    March 19, 2015

    My son goes to visit Brutus in Montana sanctuary!

  7. Ryan
    March 19, 2015

    they are incredible animals keep up the great work

  8. lakesha
    March 17, 2015

    seriously, the grizzly is cute – but the pictures are medium. greetz

  9. nabeel
    March 16, 2015

    nice but be careful

  10. Nick S.
    March 16, 2015

    Where can you ride 4 wheelers in the Beartooths? Didn’t think you could in wilderness areas.

  11. alex
    March 16, 2015


  12. Carla
    March 16, 2015

    Magnificent animals and wonderful work! Be careful out there!

  13. admiralbrown
    March 16, 2015

    I’ve hiked into Granite Peak both from the north over Froze To Death Plateau and from the south past the Skytop Lakes. Luckily I’ve never seen a bear. Great photos to keep my on my toes.

  14. bbuckley
    March 16, 2015

    scary as my b***s

  15. abhishek
    March 16, 2015

    Great article & awesome pictures

  16. Robin Kim
    March 15, 2015

    Awesome pictures! Be careful and what kind of camera was used ; does anybody know?

  17. Sandra
    March 15, 2015


  18. Jeanette
    March 15, 2015

    You are a real bear lover. The article and pics are very good. Thanks for sharing.

  19. carol cummings
    March 15, 2015

    I know the fear of having your heart pound in your chest but you described it beautifully. The picture is magnificent.

  20. Cynthia
    March 15, 2015

    Careful. I hope you’ve read everything you could about Grizzes. In particular, “Bear Attacks-There Causes and Avoidance” by Stephen Herrero. A must read if venturing into grizz country. And let’s not forget Timothy Treadwell . . .

  21. Michael
    March 15, 2015

    Nice sharp images for a camera trap. Great work !

  22. Ron Hunter
    March 14, 2015

    Don’t forget to carry your spray can of Bear Repellant and a fresh DEPENDS!

  23. Eileen
    March 13, 2015

    Nice read. Thanks for sharing

  24. Sarah
    March 13, 2015

    Awesome encounter, despite a little scary! You have such a love for bears like I do 😉

  25. Genie
    March 11, 2015

    What a scary and fantastic experience.

  26. Jeff Hogan
    March 11, 2015

    Great job Drew!

  27. jason wright
    March 11, 2015

    I think that its fantastic that National Geographic has the intelligence to find and research these problems that effect all of us out here in the west.

  28. Sarwar Hussain
    March 11, 2015

    Great job !

  29. endar widiah
    March 11, 2015

    Awesome!, checking around the lens working with adrenalin

  30. Zak McKracken
    March 11, 2015

    Soo… as an outsider I do wonder if it is a wise idea to have a flash attached to the camera. Isn’t that sure to raise attention of every animal that happens to come close?
    What kind of camera are you using? I’d tend to think that a mirrorless large-sensor camera using a fully electronic shutter should be sensitive enough to not need artificial lighting, and also virtually quiet — or are those too large to hide well?

  31. Cora
    March 10, 2015

    you have got guts and talent! Let’s keep them both inside your body. All your hard work is paying off! Keep it up.

  32. Remedine Fernandes
    March 10, 2015

    Awesome pics

  33. Lorene Goble
    March 10, 2015

    Why does that little bear have a penny in his nose?

  34. Luis Pacheco
    March 10, 2015

    Awesome that your camera wasn’t tasty!

  35. luis rodrigo saa
    March 10, 2015

    great job Drew

  36. (Cousin) Marti Jackson Rothrock
    March 10, 2015

    Simply Awesome! Love your work!!

  37. Makhmoor A Goheer
    March 10, 2015

    Real good

  38. Rafael Bem
    March 10, 2015

    Great job Drew!

  39. Barb Brazer
    March 10, 2015

    Awesome. Both knew your camera was there, amazing.

  40. Judy Ellenburg
    March 10, 2015

    Just incredible pic’s, beautiful…Thank You for sharing, stay safe out there.

  41. Anand
    March 10, 2015

    Nice work Drew!

  42. Paul
    March 10, 2015

    Incredible work and thank you for sharing. I also echo the sentiment of Ms. Jackson; please don’t get chomped on. Thank you, wonderful post!

  43. Sarah Martin
    March 10, 2015

    wow! Great work! Thank you for bringing this magnificent animal to life for us!

  44. cecil Dixon
    March 10, 2015

    Great article

  45. AuntJoan Jackson
    March 10, 2015

    Great pic’s and please don’t let the bears get you Much Love

  46. Tom
    March 10, 2015

    Long hours, dangerous work, great results Drew!

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