The Story of Colorado
Amateur photographer from Aurora, Colorado
I didn’t know what to expect when I reached out to Elisa Dahlberg. There wasn’t much to go on – just a single photo (left) from Nature’s Best Photography and an email address. Elisa doesn’t have a website or an online space for her photography; she works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, so many of her wildlife photos technically belong to the government. I tentatively sent my email, and promptly received an enthusiastic yes and a life story – before we even arranged a Skype session. She’s a lovely soul who laughs easily and often, and we had a great conversation.
Elisa served in the US Air Force for several years, and after leaving the military, she went back to school to study geology, ecology, evolutionary biology, museum collections management, and vertebrate paleontology. Then she was hired by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a park ranger at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Now she works for the National Eagle and Wildlife Repository (also run by Fish and Wildlife), where she helps manage the collections of eagles found dead across the US, and the collections of illegal wildlife products that have been confiscated by US Customs agents. It’s kind of a macabre, depressing job, Elisa says, but it’s important work.
Her wildlife photography hobby started on a family trip to Yellowstone National Park (now a semi-annual event). There were plenty of animals to be seen, but Elisa was frustrated with her little point-and-shoot camera. She worked on improving a little bit at a time, practicing out on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, and moved up to better SLR cameras. “It’s kind of an addiction!” she says. “You’re just like, ‘I gotta get that better shot, gotta get that better shot’ … [It’s about] just wanting to get that better shot and tell a better story.”
One thing that distinguishes Elisa from many other wildlife photographers is her focus on an animal’s context. While it’s nice to get a tight facial shot, she really likes to back up and capture the landscape too, to show the animal within its environment. She’ll go somewhere with the goal of photographing a certain animal, but while there she’ll take photos of everything else that’s around – flowers, common animals, birds – to try to document the entire ecosystem. She says, “I usually come home with a pretty good album of all the things that were in that area, not just that one thing that I went there for.” Also, after working and taking photos at the Refuge for several years, Elisa has seen animals' patterns of behavior changing – migratory birds arriving and leaving later, fawns being born earlier, pikas (like the one below) moving to higher elevations, and so on. Each photo, each piece of context, contributes to the story of that animal and that ecosystem. And all of those stories add up to reveal a bigger picture – the story of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.
Telling these stories is hugely important for Elisa, especially when so many people are really disconnected from the natural world. Fortunately, her photos do seem to get people to notice things. She says, “I just share a lot of [my photos] on my Facebook page with my friends. But I think what that does is open up a world that they don’t see all the time, because I go find these things and take pictures of them, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what is that?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s a flower you probably have in your backyard, but just don’t know because you don’t pay attention to it.’” Those photos that attract the interest of her friends can also reach a much wider audience through the Fish and Wildlife Service than Elisa could reach on her own.
One thing that’s more difficult to share with the public is the collection of confiscated wildlife products in the Repository where she works. They do offer tours once a month though, where Elisa regularly sees visitors become horrified and extremely angry. She describes walking through the Repository’s warehouse: “aisles and aisles of dead animals… everything from tigers to caiman to pangolin to native species, bear, wolves … rhino horn, which is worth more than a lot of drugs on the black market … That in itself is a worldwide example of biodiversity that’s being extinguished for profit. When I see all these animals come into the warehouse, it hurts my heart. I think that translates into my photography a little more because I’m afraid that at some point that’ll happen to the animals around me in our native ecosystem. The plains are being eaten up day by day in construction, new housing developments… it’s like wildfire.”
However, Elisa has seen some promising signs of increasing biodiversity too, at least on the Refuge. Black-footed ferrets were declared extinct at least twice, but were reintroduced in the Refuge several times over the last few years – and it’s a perfect place for them. Black-footed ferrets are obligate predators to prairie dogs, of which there are around 55,000 on the Refuge. Elisa documents them whenever she sees them, and while they’re naturally elusive, they seem to be thriving. The prairie dogs support dozens of other species too, including burrowing owls, rattlesnakes, rabbits, badgers, raptors (birds of prey), and coyotes.
Elisa takes photos of all of these animals and more, as well their interactions; she tells the stories of the wildlife of the Rocky Mountains to reconnect people with nature. Her philosophy? “Make people care about it and they’ll want to protect it.”
Quick Facts About Elisa
Favorite photo subjects: Bison, but she doesn’t discriminate. “I’ll take anything, honestly, any day.” Has issues with kestrels though – “Every time I see one they’re in the worst lighting ever!”
What’s next for Elisa: Visiting Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park, and the Pacific northwest, and also entering more photo competitions
Where you can find her online: No website or public page of her own, but you can see some of her stuff on the Fish and Wildlife Mountain and Prairie Flickr page.
Elisa’s photography tips
- Know the ethics of wildlife photography – respect the animal’s space and needs, don’t get too close to the animal or disturb it, don’t be obnoxious. You shouldn’t be changing an animal’s behavior with your presence.
- Get a good camera (and know how to use it!)
- Learn how to take good, artful photos – framing the shot, composition, lighting, what the background looks like, things like that.
- BUT if you see something cool, if something’s happening – just get the photo!