New West

By Todd Wilkinson

Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton

Pat Clayton turns fish into art muses for conservation

By Todd Wilkinson

During winter, when others are bundled in thermal layers and plying the slopes, Pat Clayton loves to ski but he makes his living by taking polar bear plunges into icy rivers. In summer, once the snow melts and high water begins to recede, Clayton inconspicuously humps into the high country, carrying 50 pounds of camera gear and a surfer’s wetsuit in his backpack, checking out pools few of us notice.

Is Clayton the best underwater photographer of trout and salmon in North America?

Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton

Besides taking pictures of fish that make us think, and giving scientists visual reference points for where they reside in an age of climate change, Clayton creates truly breathtaking collectible art.

Through his company, Fish Eye Guy Photography, he has amassed a remarkable portfolio hung in homes and offices throughout the northern Rockies. The only question is whether he’s documenting visions of what once was, or wake-up calls for what’s at stake in the decades ahead?

I first became aware of Clayton’s luminescent images a few years ago after Orvis underwrote his three-month mission to southwest Alaska. There, Clayton highlighted the menacing threat posed by the proposed Pebble Mine slated for construction in one of the last—and still healthy—headwaters for wild salmonids left on Earth.

For most Americans, Pebble Mine is merely an abstraction. To highlight what could potentially be destroyed, Clayton immersed himself in the fish spawning streams that flow off the Alaska Peninsula into the north Pacific Ocean, birthing the fertile commercial fishing waters of Bristol Bay.

He’s embarked upon similar missions to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; to the drainage of Montana’s legendary Smith River where a controversial hardrock mine is being planned; and into the Gallatin River southwest of Bozeman where there is concern about sewage effluent from Big Sky harming that blue-ribbon trout mecca. He’s trekked all over the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, visiting, too, the alpine lakes of the Wind River Range that hold relic populations of golden trout.

Clayton’s photographs are analogous to Thomas Moran’s colorful paintings of Yellowstone before it became a national park and which convinced Congress to safeguard it as the first preserve of its kind.

Upon his return from Bristol Bay, Clayton’s images were circulated by Orvis, Patagonia, Trout Unlimited, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, reaching millions of citizens.

Despite the Pebble Mine’s estimated billions of dollars’ worth of gold and copper that could be extracted, his photos ask: what about the value of irreplaceable habitat for five species of salmon (which account for 75 percent of local jobs) as well as Dolly Varden (bull trout) and wild rainbows?

With modesty, Clayton told me, “I’m just glad I can help raise awareness.” He’s doing far more than that.

Late last summer, he went north again, this time to chronicle fish and mammal species inhabiting the North Slope in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR is now being targeted by the Trump Administration (first by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and now his proposed replacement, David Bernhardt) for oil and gas drilling.

Clayton enlisted a bush pilot to fly him to the foot of the Brooks Range, the same mountains beloved by the Murie family of Jackson Hole. In solitude, he spent weeks traveling via packraft from the mountains down to the Beaufort Sea.

Of all the far-flung places he’s gone, this product of Washington State holds special reverence for his adopted home region, Greater Yellowstone. A former ski bum in Jackson who now lives in Bozeman, he feels an urgency based upon the changes he’s witnessing in the high country affecting the outlook for wild native fish.

While charismatic megafauna—bears, wolves, mountain lions and ungulates—seize a lot of the attention, Clayton says fish are equally spectacular products evolution that sometimes persist on thin margins.

Clayton has been outspoken in his concern for the Gallatin River, whose water quality is being threatened by water and sewage disposal challenges in the resort community of Big Sky.

As Clayton shared hundreds of digital photos of Greater Yellowstone’s westslope, Yellowstone and Snake River cutthroats, bull trout, Arctic grayling, goldens and rainbows, he made me vow that I would never reveal the locations where they were taken. In addition to climate change and development, fish populations are imperiled by social media, he notes.

Modern cameras are to blame. Many people are unaware of GPS geotagging technology that shares the locations of where photos are taken. Unwittingly, discreet remote venues are getting overrun, and in some cases, fish refuges hammered by anglers, because the locations are shared via Instagram and Facebook.

“I’ve seen it happen,” Clayton says. “That’s the problem with social media and geotagging. It’s like revealing maps that lead people to buried treasure. They can’t hold back their impulses. They want to claim that they fished these streams before the trout went away and they don’t stop to reflect that they’re part of the problem.”

Clayton’s first bit of advice: all photographers should turn their automatic geotagging features on their cameras off. Next, he says, don’t be the person who, for reasons of sating personal egos and fame seeking sets out to claim the last best wild country for themselves. Fish have low tolerance levels for disturbance.

Pat Clayton is bearing witness. Support an artist who is devoted to conserving piscatorial wildness in our backyard and which, besides giving us clean water, provides habitat for other species. He can tell you how, with climate change, how fragile the headwaters of Greater Yellowstone really are.

About The Author

The New West, Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal ( devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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