POWELL — Having identified the tracks of black bear, grizzly and wolf on a trail at the base of a rock slide, Tessa Fowler knew she was in the right place.
Fowler found a spot with her back to the rocks and the wind in her face, knowing nothing — except maybe goats and sheep — could get behind her. She was hoping to attract a wolf with a cottontail-in-distress call. She began calling about once every 20 minutes, but soon got peckish and reached for her sandwich.
Fowler, who always hunts alone and only for Wyoming’s top predators, had hiked well into the wilderness near the Sunlight District in the Beartooth Range. Putting in 10 miles a day is common for the “Mountain Girl,” who, in past years, has lived in the woods from early May to late October.
Typically, Fowler hunts with her camera, but on this day she was carrying a big bore Marlin 45-70 with a custom stock, to accommodate her short arms, and a wolf tag.
However, it wasn’t a wolf that answered her calls. Instead, a large sow grizzly showed.
“I looked down and saw something coming about 50 feet below me,” she said, briefly closing her eyes in an attempt to replay the images in her head.
The wind was in her face, so she wasn’t too worried.
“I’m like, well, it wasn’t gonna see me or smell me because the winds were in my favor,” Fowler said. “And then it looked right up at me and starts coming.”
Warden, a bluetick coonhound that’s Fowler’s constant companion, was at her side and getting nervous.
“He started whining,” she said, “and I’m telling him to hold tight and get ready. Just hold tight. Get ready, get ready.”
Not many hunting dogs are as mindful as Warden. Luke Ellsbury, a large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, has been running hounds for years and has been impressed with the quality of training of Fowler’s pups.
“I’ve seen very few packs of hounds that are as obedient as hers,” Ellsbury said.
This wasn’t Warden’s or Fowler’s first encounter with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s apex predator. She stood, waving her arms and letting the bear know she was there. “I’m talking to it. And it’s still coming. It’s looking right at me and it’s coming. It was making its way through the trees, but never took its eyes off of me.”
Fowler started to fear the worst, which in her mind meant shooting the federally protected species. “I got my rifle — one was in the chamber,” she said. The lever action on the rifle — which she’s named “The Griz Stopper” — is too loud to chamber a shell once a target is in sight.
“I was doing everything they tell you to do, you know, but it just kept coming,” Fowler said of the bear. “Warden was beside himself.”
Finally, with the bear within 20 feet, Fowler told Warden, “Get ‘em.”
“That bear didn’t even see [Warden] until he was in its face barking, because it was still looking at me. It didn’t even see him run up.”
With Warden on the attack, the bear flipped around on its hind end and started heading down the hill with Warden on its tail. “Then I’m like, wait, come back, Warden.”
“Other dogs, they’ll end up in the North Fork. I mean, they won’t stop,” she said. “So Warden chases the bear about 900 yards, and as soon as he felt that bear was on the run, and I was safe, he comes back to me.”
At home, Warden and Fowler talk to each other; not unlike most couples. Warden throws his head back and softly mixes whines with howls while Fowler speaks to him as if he understands every word. He might; who’s to say he doesn’t.
On the walls of the cabin — high above the pristine North Cottonwood Creek near Heart Mountain — are sparse photos of landscapes, mountain goats and lions. They’re the few photos Fowler has taken that she has actually kept for herself. As a professional wildlife photographer, most of her work is sold at auction, on her website or only seen on the covers and pages of periodicals or websites.
Fowler’s secret to success in the industry is gaining access to wildlife through long hikes into the wilderness and months-long stays in the woods. Pursuing predators with a camera or gun is the same process, she said. They both involve long, spot and stalk walks through the inhospitable wilderness. “I don’t wear out,” she boasts.
Local Game Warden Chris Queen, who works the Sunlight District, is impressed with Fowler’s stamina and resolve.
“It’s a beautiful thing when you can camp in the woods when the sun is out, but you know, she would roll in there a lot of times when it was still snowing; it was cold,” Queen said. “She persevered through that and appeared to enjoy it.”
Prior to turning to her passions of hunting and photography, Fowler ran Mountain Girl Bakery in Cody. She wasn’t in debt when she decided to shutter the business, but she left with little to show for the hard work.
“I walked away with $1.56 in the bank.”
Since taking up photography full-time, Fowler has harvested Wyoming’s top three predators: a bear, a wolf and a mountain lion.
She has had many other opportunities, but is very “picky” about pulling the trigger. Fowler prefers to stalk the animal for days, if not weeks, before deciding to harvest an animal.
“She’s been the type of person that’s a pretty good study on animals, especially when she finds one that she really likes. She keeps after it — trying to keep track of it just to learn a little bit about the animal itself — which is pretty neat,” Ellsbury said. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of people or even a lot of hunters who do that, especially in the carnivore world. It’s hard to hunt a hunter.”
Fowler would love to hunt a bighorn sheep or mountain goat, but has yet to draw a tag. She’s buying preference points and knows the day will come. Those are her most successful species to photograph, and she feels she has a leg up on the competition.
Fowler doesn’t hunt elk because she hunts alone.
“By the time I would’ve packed out a quarter [of the animal], a bear would be on the carcass,” she said. “I don’t want to waste the resource.”
Fowler plans to take a white-tailed buck this coming season. She’s been watching a couple near the cabin and can get it back to the kitchen without much problem — though the Cottonwood Creek area has its share of predators.
She didn’t live in the woods this year. Instead she put in months of labor working on her acreage between hikes with her hounds. But she, Warden, Ranger and Posse are getting antsy; several hunting seasons begin this month.
“She’s really passionate about what she does and she’s really passionate about the mountains and everything in them — a quality I wish more people had,” Ellsbury said.