By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — A Wyoming photographer whose work captures both the majesty and the savagery of wildlife in Yellowstone National Park says she is drawn by the irresistible lure of the park’s animals, and though she loves photographing bears and wolves, she is “always rooting for the elk calf.”
“I understand the food chain,” said Wapiti, Wyo. wildlife and nature photographer Sandy Sisti. “But I still don’t like to see anything suffer.”
Since moving to Wyoming five years ago from Hamilton, Mont., south of Missoula, Sisti has earned a growing following of fans and supporters of her Wild at Heart Images. It’s not something she had imagined growing up in Long Island, N.Y.
Though she worked in the pharmaceutical industry in New York, Sisti always took photos of wildlife there. But that mainly meant trips to the New Jersey and Florida shores for birding pictures.
In 1994, Sisti made her first trip to the world’s first national park, immediately developing what she calls a “weird, crazy obsession with Yellowstone.” She returned home and began searching for a job close to the park.
Sisti has a sense of humor about her intense interest in Yellowstone, and says her friends and husband often tease her about loving the park perhaps just a bit too much.
“Oh, yeah, it’s sick and wrong,” she said with a laugh. “When they close the East Gate (in the fall), I’m under a black cloud of depression for a month. I have to think of things to keep myself occupied. I feel like a friend is gone.”
Luckily for Sisti and her thousands of fans online, there are plenty of photos to share until the park opens again for winter.
Sisti also shares her work with nonprofit groups engaged in conservation work around the greater Yellowstone area.
“I like to be able to make a difference. I like that they can use my pictures to help illustrate things or get attention for their issues,” she said. “That makes me happy.”
Among the first groups she donated images to was the Buffalo Field Campaign, a West Yellowstone group working to stop the hazing and slaughter of Yellowstone bison that wander outside park boundaries during winter.
“The bison is a very majestic animal. They don’t get as much press as the other animals, because you see them all the time,” she said. “But the bison rut is really spectacular — just about one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Though Sisti says she fully understands the brutal nature of life in Yellowstone, including harsh winters and predator-prey relations, that doesn’t make it any easier to witness a battered old bull bison struggling to survive alone, or an elk calf being taken by a wolf or bear.
One photo Sisti took earlier this year of two wolves fighting over a carcass illustrates many of those difficult but compelling dynamics in the park, and it elicited a strong reaction from some who saw it.
“Sibling Rivalry” captures a moment where two wolves from the Canyon Pack fight over an elk carcass near Alum Creek. The image is at once frightening, arresting, beautiful and compelling, as it shows a dominant wolf — fangs clearly visible — leaping toward a weaker rival.
Other photographers were standing alongside her when she got the shot, but Sisti’s photo emerged as the definitive image of that decisive moment.
Some commenters on Sisti’s Facebook page said they found the picture difficult to view, while others complained that it cast wolves in a “bad light.” Just as many defended it as an accurate and engaging portrayal of nature at work, showing the often unseen but always present wolf pack pecking order.
“I understand how that’s hard for people to see — it’s hard for me to see too,” Sisti said, explaining that she hesitated at first about posting the photo, which has since become a favorite of collectors. “I know that’s the way nature works.”
There’s plenty more in Sisti’s portfolio showing how nature works, including heartwarming images of baby animals with parents and glowing scenic views of the park.
As much as she loves Yellowstone, Sisti confesses that she doesn’t go to quite the same extremes as some of her fellow park photographers who sometimes sleep in their cars or camp in the backcountry for days to get their shots.
Sisti lives near the park’s East Gate, and prefers to rise early to get into the park by dawn, so she can spend a full day shooting before returning home to sleep in her own bed. But as convenient as it is to live at Yellowstone’s doorstep, she sometimes misses the shopping, dining and nightlife of New York. The nearest Bloomingdale’s is 850 miles away.
Still, she says, even an uneventful day in the wilds of Yellowstone is something the best shopping malls or urban centers have a hard time competing with.
“Really, for me, it’s all about the wildlife,” Sisti said. “Sometimes, it’s just you and nothing else except a grizzly bear and a cub. For me, that’s an amazing thing. I don’t even have to take a picture. It’s like a zen thing, just being there for that moment.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].