Gaylord Mink, hunched over and quiet as a mule deer, picks his way through rugged rangeland near the center of the Yakama Indian Reservation.
Mink stops, straightens, and scans toward Dry Creek Elbow in the distance. Much closer, five wild horses lift their own heads to meet his gaze. They are all well within range.
The small band’s stallion snorts a warning as the nervous mares and a colt seem anxious to bolt. Mink snorts back, and the stallion circles even closer to take up the challenge, dragging his wary entourage in his wake.
Mink is a hunter who doesn’t pack a gun. He shoots with a video camera and bags scenes that few people would ever see if the retired Washington State University professor weren’t lurking somewhere out there in the wilderness, his camera lens thrust through a thicket.
“I usually get out and crawl around like a reptile among sagebrush and dirt and rattlesnakes,” said Mink, whose face crinkles into frequent laughs.
Mink has spent his adult life on the hunt–first as an Army scout during the Korean War, then for the better part of four decades as a Prosser-based WSU researcher and professor who tracked down plant diseases that threaten some of the region’s most valuable crops.
Now 74 and retired for a decade, by his own account Mink is hopelessly addicted to videotaping wildlife, a pursuit that calls him afield three to four days most weeks.
He shares his quarry–images that seem ready to gallop or soar off the screen–with the Yakama Nation and state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, who in turn use the films to teach the public about wildlife management.
In exchange, Mink gets uncommon access to critters ranging from black bears to bighorn sheep to burrowing owls.
“His dedication to getting the job done is pretty unbelievable,” said Chuck Gibilisco, who coordinates the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Watchable Wildlife program.
Mink has filmed burrowing owl behavior for the state agency’s Web site. This year the partners hope to set up a live WildWatch camera inside an owl pair’s burrow, allowing the public to observe the birds on the Internet without disturbing the troubled species.
Gibilisco believes that Mink’s work could help turn the burrowing owls into “spokes-creatures” for the shrub-steppe landscape that dominates south-central Washington, where the habitat and owl numbers have declined.
“Without Gaylord, it wouldn’t be happening,” Gibilisco says. “He’s such a tremendous resource because of his capabilities.”
Gaylord Mink was an Indiana farm boy when he started working for a plant pathologist at Purdue University. After beginning his studies there, he took time off for military service, then returned and made a name for himself as a plant pathologist.
Mink specialized in viruses that attack fruit trees, so the year after earning his Ph.D. in 1961, it was a natural fit to continue his research in Washington’s orchard country.
During his years in Prosser, he started programs that certify fruit trees as disease free, developed a lab to test for seed-borne viruses, and studied a type of ringspot disease that attacks cherries, peaches, and related fruits.
Well into his career, Mink signed up for a project with the U.S. Aid for International Development program. He traveled to East Africa six times during the 1980s and 1990s to research bean common mosaic virus, an African native that threatened bean seed production worldwide, including Washington’s lucrative crop. Eventually, his work lent better understanding of the virus that in turn helped refine practices that now limit its spread.
Also during those years, Mink received a video camera as a gift and learned how to use it while aiming at waterfowl in the Yakima Valley. Naturally, he packed the camera for research journeys to Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.
“I developed a pretty serious passion for videotaping wildlife,” he said. “I had my camera pointed out the window at anything that would walk, crawl, or fly.”
After retirement, Mink learned about the Yakama Nation’s various wildlife programs and volunteered to videotape a salmon project. That led to other assignments and eventually landed him on the range with wild horses, which are among his most exhilarating subjects.
Earlier ancestors of modern horses once roamed North America, but the wild horses of the Yakama Nation trace their roots to hardy Mustangs–with vestiges of other breeds released after the arrival of automobiles–first brought to the New World in the 1500s. They arrived north of the Columbia River in the 1700s, and the Yakamas quickly embraced the animal. By 1806, when Lewis and Clark bought horses from the tribe, the Yakamas were expert horsemen.
Today the Yakama reservation is home to at least 3,000 wild horses–by far the state’s largest population. Wild horses were exterminated in many places but allowed to flourish on tribal lands, where they remain part of the Indian culture and economy.
However, today the horses might be too successful. They gobble the grasses that elk and other native species need. They scar the sensitive soils of sagebrush country, causing erosion that fills streams with silt and harms fish. They may degrade habitat where the Yakama plan to reintroduce pronghorn antelope and sage grouse.
The majestic animals, which have few predators, even harm themselves, because overcrowded horses are becoming stunted due to lack of forage and are more vulnerable to diseases, says Jim Stephenson, who works for the tribe as a large-animal biologist.
The Yakama Nation is in the process of developing a plan to manage horse herds that likely will include thinning their numbers by half or more, Stephenson says. He hopes many excess horses can be trained for riding, though some may have to be killed.
“The range has been hit pretty hard,” Stephenson says. “We need to educate the tribal public as well as others on pretty much all aspects of the horse project. What [Mink is] doing is an important part of that.”
Mink’s documentaries also help the tribe preserve its culture, history, and lands through education, says Arlen Washines, a tribal member who manages the reservation’s wildlife, range, and vegetation resources.
Mink is definitely not in it for the money; he donates his time and accepts reimbursement only for travel and videotaping expenses.
“If it ever turns out to be work,” he says, “then I’ll quit.”
That seems unlikely, coming from the same grinning mouth promising to keep videotaping wildlife “til either I die out there or somebody tells me I can’t do it anymore.”