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Wildlife art: portraits of an untamed country

An exhibit on North American wildlife art inspires passion and informs science.

By Todd Wilkinson/ correspondent / August 10, 2011

‘Rocky Wilderness Cougar’ (1980), by Robert Bateman.

Artwork courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art

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Jackson Hole, Wyo.

For nearly a month, Dwayne Harty never saw a jet contrail tapering overhead in the sky as he traversed the wilderness of Canada. If that seems unusual, what he did encounter was even more remarkable: five notoriously reclusive wolverines, a dozen grizzly bears, caribou, and bighorn sheep streaming through preternatural gaps in glacier-coated mountains.

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Whenever wolves howled, which at the far northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains was a daily occurrence, he could feel the pounding heart of his packhorse beneath him.

Like other famous wildlife painters before him, Mr. Harty sought out a frontier untrammeled by civilization. What he brought back from his multiyear sojourns are stunning chronicles on canvas of ­solitude-seeking animals – "indicator species" whose well-being can telegraph environmental conditions to monitoring scientists and society at large.

"This incredible assemblage of wildlife art," says conservationist-turned-art curator Harvey Locke, "is like having a three-way mirror positioned in front of one of the wildest terrestrial corridors on Earth. And, lo and behold, it happens to be situated in the backyard of America and Canada."

This summer in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a novel art exhibition of contemporary and historical paintings has drawn big crowds. Its purpose is to call attention to the furry and feathered inhabitants of the continent's longest contiguous "eco-region," which transcends the borders of two countries.

"Yellowstone to Yukon: Journey of Wildlife and Art" ends its run in August at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. It has won praise for showing how fine art can illuminate issues of science and conservation in ways words alone cannot.

The perspectives wildlife art provides Mr. Locke suggests, is threefold. It enables viewers to ponder the last gasp of the Western frontier conveyed through the brush strokes of 19th-century painters and gain a clear-eyed picture on challenges likely to threaten wildlife survival, and most important, it stirs viewers to reflect on the value of nature.

That the show is running at the height of the summer tourist season, with millions of vacationers en route to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, is no coincidence.

"More than ever in an age of climate change and expanding footprints of human development, it's important to understand why healthy environments matter," Locke says.

The ambitious assemblage of paintings and sculpture features works by prominent American and Canadian nature artists who, over two centuries, were drawn to the spine of the Rockies. There they followed the winding Yellowstone to Yukon corridor stretching 2,000 miles from sand dunes and treeless sagebrush in Wyoming's Red Desert to the moose-trodden muskeg and Dall sheep crags of the high Arctic in the Northwest Territories.

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