Seeley Lake photographer Zack Clothier takes international wildlife photography award – Great Falls Tribune

What does it take for the work of a small-town nature photographer from Montana to be recognized as among some of the best in the world? You need only look as far as Seeley Lake to find out.
This October, the winning images of the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition were announced by the Natural History Museum of London. From more than 50,000 submissions, coming from photographers across 95 countries, Zack Clothier’s photo “Grizzly Remains” was selected winning photograph for the “Animals in their Environment” category of the longest-running and most prestigious nature photography competition in the world.
“Your eye goes to the rib cage, moves to the antlers and then gets a jolt from the great grizzly head looming into view,” Roz Kidman Cox, chair of the judging panel said of Clothier’s picture. “It is a story picture: the harsh winter environment, the bear emerging from its hibernation den to make use of what food it can find. But what gives it the edge is the bear’s expression. You cannot help smiling.”
Clothier describes his achievement in simpler terms.
“Hard work, determination, patience, and even a little luck all played a role in the capturing of this image,” the 38-year-old said in describing his recognition to the website Montanica!. “I’m beyond excited and honored to announce (this).”
Clothier grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. As a teenager, he spent his days dreaming of wilderness adventure and honing his skills as a wildlife tracker and photographer.
“I’m a self-taught photographer,” he said. “I taught myself just by reading books on the subject.”
Clothier’s first ‘camera traps’ were crude homemade constructions, cobbled together from bits and pieces of castaway electronics.
“I was using a motion sensor pulled out of a set of garage door lights and a car door opener solenoid switch. When motion was detected, the solenoid would trip the shutter on the camera. I housed all these cameras in metal ammo cans that were pretty heavy, bulky pieces of gear.”
Throughout his teens and into his 20s, Clothier dreamed of coming to Montana. In 2006 he entered a summer backcountry seminar, probing the wilds of Yellowstone National Park to learn the art of tracking wolves and bears within the Rocky Mountain high country. The experience convinced him that Montana was where he wanted to be and that he would do whatever it took to make it there.
“As a kid, Montana was always in the back of my mind,” Clothier said. “By the time I met up with the (animal tracking) group I’d already convinced myself that I had to find a way to get out here.”
That came a few years later. By 2011 he’d made the transition, moving throughout the western reaches of the state: Bozeman, Cooke City, the Bitterroot Valley, wherever opportunity presented itself.
In 2017 he bought a house with his wife, Cortney, and settled into the Seeley Lake/Swan River Valley of western Montana.
Early on, Clothier’s photography was largely focused on wild landscapes, but as time passed, he regained his interest in camera trap photography; this time with the advantage of modern digital equipment.
“I shot a lot of landscapes when I lived in the northeast,” he said. “Once I got out here, I started getting more into the wildlife side of things, going back to my tracking roots and using my skills to find the animals.”
Clothier makes regular trips into the backcountry, often accompanied by Cortney and the couple’s fur baby — their Husky Mya.
Although Clothier’s equipment is lighter now than during his teenage years, the multiple cameras, lights, tripods, motion sensors and basic survival gear amount to a heavy haul.
“It’s much lighter than the old ammo cans, but it’s still a lot of gear to lug around,” Clothier said. “My backpack usually weighs 40- to 50-pounds when it’s loaded all up with a camera trap. Usually, I’m spending at least six or seven hours setting up just one.”
In the winter of 2019, Zack and Cortney were out on a cross-country ski trip when Zack spotted an opportunity.
“I was out skiing with Cortney and Mya, and we happened to just ski around the bend where there was a bull elk right in the middle of the trail,” he recalled.
At that point, the elk’s body had already been stripped clean by predators
“There wasn’t a ton left,” Clothier recalled. “It was picked pretty clean. There were wolf tracks all around, so at least one wolf was coming back and picking on the things that were left.”
Clothier set up an extended camera trap on the carcass site, taking advantage of a tree-well to hide his main camera low to the ground, and facing directly toward the elk’s skeleton. He didn’t expect much.
“Over the next two months, I returned once to change out batteries and check on the camera,” he said. “The wolf never returned. Instead, I captured a variety of other scavengers — foxes, martens, ravens and even snowshoe hares were all regular visitors to the carcass.”
“As winter transitioned into spring, it became increasingly difficult to access the camera due to deteriorating snow conditions,” he continued. “I stayed away from the area for as long as I could before needing to return to change out batteries.”
The signature day came during the second half of April 2020. The weather had been unseasonably warm that week, and Clothier worried that if he waited much longer his camera batteries would die.
“I waited for a cold day due to a creek that had to be navigated along the way,” he said. “I loaded up my skis and decided to throw in my snowshoes as well, just in case.”
Alone, Clothier headed to the carcass site.
“Everything was melting,” he said. “The snow conditions had deteriorated very badly.”
Clothier got to the creek that had been frozen over just a few months before.
“It was a small creek, but after the spring melt, it was really raging,” he said. “I must have spent a couple of hours just trying to find enough downed logs to build a little makeshift bridge across this creek.
“After I built the bridge, I switched over to snowshoes and snowshoed the rest of the way in. As I got back there to within a hundred yards of my camera trap, there were these massive grizzly tracks heading right out toward the carcass. And they were fresh tracks.”
Clothier cautiously checked the trail camera he had set a few hundred feet away from his main trap camera to see how recently the bear had visited the site.
“I didn’t know if he was still over there on the carcass or not,” he recalled. “I was definitely a little uneasy being at that location. The last thing I wanted to do was walk into a grizzly bear on a carcass. I just started making a lot of noise, trying to scare him off if he was back there.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Clothier continued, “but I waited probably a good 25 minutes before I walked back to the camera. There were grizzly tracks all over back there, and the camera was just about underwater because of all the snowmelt. The camera was flipped up in the air and pointing up toward the sky. There was a bunch of slobber on the lens, so I knew that the bear attacked it.”
Clothier had low expectations that his camera had captured any compelling photographs, noting that in his experience “bears have a thing for camera traps.”
“Before the camera trap even goes off bears are coming up and knocking them around, tipping them over, slobbering all over the front of the lens,” he explained. “It’s actually quite rare that you come away with a decent image of a bear just because of all that. I just figured the bear came from the side, or from behind and had been able to neutralize the camera before I captured any decent photos. That’s usually what happens. I didn’t have high expectations when I saw the camera in that shape.”
But there was a surprise on the camera’s memory card — along with a collection of photos of hare, foxes and martens — a single image of a grizzly staring directly into the camera was preserved before the bear tried to destroy it. After that, it was all black and blur.
One single amazing image, and that’s all it really takes to win an international contest.
Still, Clothier didn’t have high expectations for his chances. He’d entered the Natural Museum of London’s photo contest before in 2020, coming away with a “Highly Commended” recognition for his photo “Ends of the Earth.”
Why should anything be any different in 2021?
“I didn’t really have an expectation,” Clothier admitted. “I knew I was up against the world, and there are so many photographers out there who are doing amazing things. I didn’t think a guy from Montana who goes out into the woods and hangs out with animals would ever have a chance in winning a competition like that.”
Then he got the news that his photo, “Grizzly Remains” had taken the prize of Photographer of the Year in the category of “Animals in their Environment.”
There was no call from London, no surprise congratulations from a dignitary or celebrity. The message came in an email.
“They sent out an email,” Clothier recalled, “basically, ‘Congratulations, you’re a winner.’ Just an email.”
Although the recognition did come with a cash award, Zack and Cortney Clothier were denied the excitement of traveling to London to receive his award due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Last year they had Kate Middleton (Duchess of York) announce the prize winners. That’s kind of how prestigious this competition is,” Zack noted. “Kate didn’t call me.”
Still, the accolades are sure to go a long way toward global recognition of a small town nature photographer from Montana.”
“I’m definitely getting more noticed now,” Clothier said. “I’ve been getting emails from all over the world from people who want to purchase prints of the piece.”
David Murray is Natural Resources/Agriculture reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or story ideas; email [email protected] or call (406) 403-3257. To preserve quality, in-depth journalism in northcentral Montana subscribe to the Great Falls Tribune.

source