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UW Alumni Named National Geographic Adventurers of the Year

November 13, 2015
two men in heavy jackets sit on rocks on a mountainside
Joe Riis (right) and Arthur Middleton watch for elk while sheltering themselves from a storm in the Yellowstone backcountry. (Shane Moore Photo)

University of Wyoming alumni Joe Riis and Arthur Middleton have been named 2016 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for their work studying, photographing and exploring wildlife migrations in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE).

Riis, a wildlife photojournalist, and Middleton, a research scientist at Yale, have traveled 1,600 miles by foot, horse and mule on trails of migratory elk in northwest Wyoming. They’ve spent months deep in the backcountry, come face to face with grizzlies, watched herds of elk swim the South Fork of the Shoshone River, crossed 12,000-foot mountain passes, and collared elk to map their movements, all to better understand how long-distance migration ties together the landscape -- from ranches near Cody to Yellowstone’s Thoroughfare country.

For this, and earlier work each of them has done independently in the GYE, the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award celebrates their achievements advancing the science, public understanding and conservation of iconic migratory wildlife species in and around the country’s first national park.

Riis and Middleton are among 10 honorees competing to be named the People's Choice Adventurer of the Year. The public can vote every day through Jan. 31 at

“Elk are the heartbeat of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in a lot of ways and, yet, their migrations hadn’t been explored with our modern tools,” Middleton says. “Just studying them didn’t seem like enough, so I wanted to join with Joe to experience them. It’s such an important ecological phenomenon, and we needed to see it with our own eyes.”

“This has grown out of longer-term work and a lot of partnerships that started at the University of Wyoming,” Riis says. “The award recognizes this elk project, which is a partnership with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, and also work that started almost a decade ago with pronghorn migration, plus the Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration I photographed with biologist Hall Sawyer.” Riis also recognizes his photography mentors, including National Geographic staff photographer Nick Nichols and the late Bobby Model, a UW graduate and National Geographic contributor, for setting him on his career path as a wildlife photojournalist.

Riis earned his B.S. in wildlife biology and environment and natural resources from UW in 2008, and Middleton earned his Ph.D. in ecology from UW in 2012. They joined efforts after they met at UW in 2010 and collaborated on a proposal for the project that would combine Middleton’s ecological research and Riis’s camera trapping to study elk migrations near Cody. The proposal won the Camp Monaco Prize, supported by the Prince II of Monaco Foundation, the UW Biodiversity Institute and the Draper Museum of Natural History, in 2013. That launched their current and ongoing elk migration work, which has received further financial support from research grants, conservation and sportsmen groups, and local ranch owners, as well as GPS data contributions from biologists in all three states and several federal agencies in the GYE.

The duo is working on a traveling museum exhibit, called “Invisible Boundaries,” to be first hosted at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and a documentary film titled “Elk River.” Riis’s photos also will appear in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine about the centennial of the National Park Service and in a book showcasing his photography of Yellowstone migrations. Middleton, who recently accepted a wildlife ecology faculty position at the University of California-Berkeley, has more work planned in the GYE, and hopes the elk project will spur broader interest in scientific studies and conservation of migratory wildlife.

For more information, contact Matt Kauffman, Wyoming Migration Initiative director, at or (307) 766-6404.

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