‘Yellowstone Live’: Baby Animals Are Front and Center in This Year’s Ambitious NatGeo Event

From grizzly bear cubs to baby otters, the four-night live TV event is emphasizing new life on its second time out.
Bison herd with new calves in the Lamar Valley near Specimen Ridge. (MICHAEL NICHOLS/National Geographic Creative)
"Yellowstone Live"
Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Yellowstone Live” finished its debut four-night run on a Wednesday last August. But before the week was over, the team behind the show knew they wanted to take on the ambitious live TV nature event again, and they knew exactly what this year’s version needed.

Baby animals. Lots and lots of baby animals.

Beginning Sunday night, Nat Geo will present another quartet of primetime one-hour installments, capturing the activity happening in the park at this summer’s opening. Teams of camera crews will be broadcasting live footage of animals and natural phenomena, mixed in with pre-recorded segments to help give audiences at home some context for what they’re seeing. Showrunner James Smith said that having this event earlier this year was a direct response to wanting to feature smaller young animals as part of the series’ broadcasts.

“July and August gets very dry, but May and June is when it’s really lush. All the animals are giving birth,” Smith told reporters this weekend. “The bison, the elk, the pronghorn. And all the predators also give birth, because there’s food, too. So the theme for this year is ‘Baby Boom.'”

Last year’s incarnation of “Yellowstone Live” featured a variety of different animal types. With this new concentrated approach on newborns, there was still an opportunity to grow that variety.

“I actually said in a production meeting the other day, ‘It sounds like sacrilege, but have we got too many babies in this show?'” Smith said. “We’ve got baby beavers, baby bears, baby elk, baby bald eagles, baby otters, baby everything.”

Most of the animals on display in “Yellowstone Live” are either from the live feed of various different camera setups or the footage turned around from those various teams in the days leading up to the event. Most times, all it takes is one tiny quick moment to make the difference between simply dropping in on animals and witnessing something that’ll also make compelling TV. While there’s no guarantee what will be available during those primetime slots, some of the behavior these teams have witnessed so far in the late spring and early summer fall into that category.

“We saw these [badger] babies suckling, which is something people don’t get to see often,” executive producer Al Berman said. “On the river’s edge, a mother otter is picking up one of her pups. She’s got it by the mouth. It’s hurt, but she’s moving it along. Oh man! You never get to see that. And that certainly wasn’t planned. So that’s part of the magic of all this.”

A camera trap captures grizzly bears bathing, splashing, and frolicking at a water hole.(MICHAEL NICHOLS/National Geographic Creative)
“Yellowstone Live”Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Fitting the entire Yellowstone experience into four days is obviously an ambitious task, but baby animals is one area where this show is trying to present something other than an overly simplistic view of what exists in the wild.

“One of the untold things that you don’t appreciate until you’re out here speaking to our experts is that while it’s a beautiful thing to see all these babies born, romping and frolicking, eating and doing what they do, it’s also a really dangerous time. There’s a life and death struggle going on.” “Yellowstone Live” co-host Josh Elliott said.

It’s a struggle that the “Yellowstone Live” production takes great lengths to capture without disturbing this ecosystem. Veteran wildlife cinematographer Jeff Hogan hopes that by showing the immense amount of work it takes for these animals to survive under some occasionally extreme conditions, the resulting awareness can lead to more informed human behavior by everyday park visitors, viewers at home, and those who live near the park’s surrounding areas.

“I don’t think humans really know how challenging it is for these animals to make a living. If we have a better understanding of our impact on that, we might make simple, easy adjustments in our life that might have a huge, positive impact for them. That way, we’re not disturbing them in ways we just didn’t realize,” Hogan said.

Even if humans were completely absent from Yellowstone National Park, it’s still a dangerous time for these newborns. Litters can be quickly thinned by nature’s ability to separate all but the most fit youngsters. Not only do many of them face threats from predators within the confines of the park, some even face danger from members of their own species, particularly from aggressive males wanting to control the size and genetic makeup of a herd or group.

One example to look out for in this year’s coverage is Mini-Mom, a female grizzly bear who’s been attracting plenty of attention from the team as she makes her way through the park with her two cubs. Smaller than an average female in her position, Mini-Mom  — whose litter this year was originally three baby bears — is an example of how there is an incredible fight for survival, even as some parts of these animals’ journeys haven’t fully gone according to plan.

“If the females got three cubs, it’s tricky to look after three cubs. She’s got to be in an area where she is trying to get as much food as rapidly as possible,” animal expert and “Yellowstone Live” co-host Chris Packham said. “It’s difficult get three cubs across a river. There’s actually a 40 percent likelihood it’s going to be killed by another male grizzly, and a pretty much 60 percent chance it’s down to starvation, insufficient nutrition at this time of year.”

Yet, despite that dire track record for some of these individual bears, one of the overall takeaways from “Yellowstone Live” is that conservation efforts within the park have given these animals their best shot at staying alive. Landmark species like the grizzly and the bison are at or near peak sustainable populations for the 2.2 million acres that the park encompasses. For Packham, this year’s constant reminder of resiliency and the continuing of the cycle has been one of this year’s biggest takeaways.

“What we don’t typically see are great densities of animals any longer. And I think some of the things that have had the most profound effect on me, the thing that gets you fired up, is when you see huge numbers of animals together,” Packham said. “It’s a place where you come and you can feel good that life still prospers on Planet Earth.”

“Yellowstone Live” airs Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET, then Monday-Wednesday at 9 p.m., on NatGeo

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