Paul Johnsgard delights in telling people he gave Tom Mangelsen his first photography lesson.
Focus on the eyes. Shoot at 1/500th of a second to stop the wing beat. End of lesson.
It was 1969 and Johnsgard was a world renowned ornithologist in the early years of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln career that has spanned more than a half century.
Mangelsen was a Doane College biology graduate from Omaha with mediocre grades and an expectation to be drafted during the Vietnam War. Johnsgard took Mangelsen under his wing as a graduate student and watched him launch a career as one of the world's premier nature photographers.
The longtime friends — now widely known naturalists — meet every spring along the Platte River in central Nebraska to witness the northward migration of sandhill cranes and other waterfowl. Three years ago, at Mangelsen's family cabin on the banks of the river, they agreed it was time to collaborate on a book.
Johnsgard put it bluntly. “We need to do a book before I croak,'' he told Mangelsen.
The result was “Yellowstone Wildlife," recently released by University Press of Colorado. In 14 essays, Johnsgard describes the lives and behavior of animals throughout the seasons in Wyoming's greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Mangelsen dug into his archive of wildlife photos from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, dating to the mid-1970s, for illustrations.
Mangelsen said the joint project was long overdue. Mangelsen provided photographs for the covers of a few Johnsgard books but they had never teamed up on a book. Not that they hadn't tried.
“We agreed once to do a book on cranes of the world,'' Mangelsen said. “Two weeks later, Paul calls and says he has the first eight chapters written and wondered how the photos were coming.''
Mangelsen replied he needed time to travel and photograph the birds.
“Paul would get frustrated and say he'd just use some of his drawings, his own photos and that he'd wrap up the book by himself,'' he said. “He had no patience. He's so productive.''
Johnsgard, an 82-year-old professor emeritus, continues to write in his downtown campus office nearly daily. He has spent a lifetime studying waterfowl, especially sandhill cranes. “Yellowstone Wildlife'' is his 60th book, not counting about six digital publications.
“I write pretty fast, a couple thousand words a day, if I'm thinking seriously,'' he said.
Mangelsen, 67, said it didn't take long for he and Johnsgard to settle on a topic for their project. Mangelsen, who lives near Jackson, Wyo., always wanted to do a book on Yellowstone and the Tetons.
“I spend almost every day photographing in my backyard or going to Yellowstone or Teton parks. I have a huge library of images,'' he said.
Johnsgard had long wanted to write a book about the ecology and natural history of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
The longtime friends were now partners in publishing. Johnsgard wrote the words. Mangelsen provided the pictures.
That was the easy part. Mangelsen said the two quickly became disenchanted with the project because their concept for the book didn't match the publisher's plan.
Mangelsen envisioned an expensive coffee table book that could be sold in his galleries across the country. The publisher initially outlined a smaller publication with about a dozen pictures tucked in the middle. Then editors agreed to photographs spread across two adjoining pages at the beginning of each chapter.
At one point, editors asked Mangelsen to write shutter speed, aperture and other camera details as captions. He refused. It wasn't a technical, how-to photography book, he said.
The project seemed doomed.
Mangelsen was at his Platte River cabin in spring 2012 when the publisher changed course, agreeing to do whatever he and Johnsgard wanted for the book.
“We finally convinced the publisher that it could be a really good book of photos and writing, and could sell thousands in my galleries alone,'' Mangelsen said.
The go-ahead put the project on a fast track. Johnsgard's writing was complete. Mangelsen's staff scrambled to find images to match the text and build a book.
The book includes 46 of Mangelsen's color photographs and 26 Johnsgard line drawings.
The cover features an image of an adult coyote in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley with a wisp of snow on its snout. Mangelsen said the portrait exemplifies what he tries to accomplish in wildlife photography — animals in their natural habitat, looking natural.
“The coyote is looking into the distance. Maybe it heard a mouse or saw a bird,'' he said. “It's the moment and place where the animal lives, without being aware of the photographer. It's a lot about the animal's classic gesture.''
Johnsgard pulled about half the text of “Yellowstone Wildlife” from a small book he wrote on observations collected during two summers in Jackson Hole in the mid-1970s. He returned to Yellowstone in recent years to catch up on the effects of the massive fires of 1988 and the reintroduction of gray wolves since 1995.
The initial printing was limited to a paperback edition priced to appeal to tourists. Mangelsen said a hardcover version is expected to be available in October.
The book won't be found in Yellowstone National Park, however. University Press of Colorado officials speculate the Yellowstone Association banned it from its 12 stores because Johnsgard takes a few pokes at management and recovery policies for grizzly bears, bison, elk and wolves.
Yellowstone Association officials did not respond to requests to explain their decision not to sell the book.
The book is available everywhere else in the country, however, including nearby Grand Teton National Park and at businesses rimming Yellowstone.
Johnsgard admits he has an anti-sport hunting bias.
“I was warned to be very careful,'' he said. “I tried to tone it down, but crossed the line.''
He laments that wolves and bison that stray from park boundaries are legally killed by sport hunters.
Mangelsen said the killing of wolves outside Yellowstone sacrifices research dating to the 1990s because hunting is fracturing the park's packs.
“We finally got these nearly exterminated, large carnivores — wolves and grizzlies — back into the ecosystem and the wolves get slaughtered. They do a much better job managing elk than man does,'' he said. “They belong there.''
Park managers say they didn't reintroduce wolves to control the number of elk but acknowledge that wolves are preying predominately on elk, the most abundant large mammal in Yellowstone. As many as 15,000 elk summer in the park.
Despite his distaste for some park wildlife management practices, Johnsgard said the things he loved when he first visited Yellowstone as a teenager in 1946 remain for 21st century visitors. The opportunity to see mountains, geysers, wild bison, bears and elk fascinated the young Johnsgard.
“It was just wonderful,'' he said. “These were places and animals I had read about since I was a child and now they were right in front of me.''
To share those wonders and memories with children and grandchildren is one of life's joys and must be cherished and passed on to future generations, he said.
“Yellowstone Wildlife” is dedicated to Bert Raynes, a Jackson Hole natural history author and columnist, and to the memory of Mardy and Olaus Murie, “whose love of wilderness approached that of a religion; one governed by only a single commandment: Preserve it!''