East Helena native Casey Anderson credits his successful wildlife filmmaking career to his parents and Vince Yannone, who was known as “Mr. Wildlife” for his popular wildlife school programs.
“I remember being in kindergarten and going to school assemblies and him bringing in birds and talking about them in such an interesting way. That was the highlight of my year every year,” Anderson said in a phone interview from his home in the Paradise Valley.
Yannone and Anderson’s parents passed on to him a love of the outdoors, which Anderson is, in turn, passing on to thousands of viewers in a series of wildlife shows.
A six-part short series launches March 26 on Smithsonian Earth, while a longer feature on Mama Mo, “The Mountain Lion and Me,” aired March 14, and is also available for streaming.
“When I grew up, I wanted to be Vince Yannone,” admits Anderson. And “I had parents who believed in that dream.”
“My parents were outdoorsy people,” he said. “I was immediately immersed in the outdoors instead of being fascinated with toys and Nintendo and that stuff.”
It was his mom Leigh Ewing, who was the director of God’s Love, who taught him to “not judge a book by its cover,” but to look deeper to understand.
And it was hiking with his dad, Chris Anderson, that led to some “amazing encounters” in the wilds.
It was these that spurred Casey to pick up a camera and start shooting pictures. He’d tell his friends about so many encounters, they thought he was lying.
So he had to prove it.
Now decades later, Anderson’s taking viewers along on his hikes so they too can have a front row seat to hear and watch male bighorn sheep bashing their heads together to establish dominance.
Or taking viewers into the wilds to see wolves and bison close up.
Anderson got started in wildlife film after graduating from Helena High School and heading to Montana State University to study wildlife biology.
There, at the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, a lot of filmmakers would show up and need someone who knew how to guide them to the grizzly or wolf they wanted to film.
Anderson was their go-to guy.
He was in his junior year at MSU, “when my dream job was presented to me.”
A filmmaker told him “I’m going to Africa for a year...can you come?”
Anderson jumped at that chance 22 years ago and never looked back.
“My first big project where I was the host on National Geographic was in 2007,” he said, when he got to be the biologist in front of the camera talking instead of working behind the scenes.
His most recent film series was sparked by the arrival on his doorstep of Mama Mo, a mountain lion. Well, actually in his backyard and walking across his deck.
“Mountain lions are impossible to find,” he said. So when Anderson saw the fresh tracks, he had to follow them.
“I became obsessed.” At first, he would see Mama Mo for just moments.
But once he figured out her patterns, he was able to film her for up to 30 days at a time.
She became a four-year project.
Anderson invested in special FLIR thermal technology and 4K camera traps to help detect her movements and even filmed her in her den with her three cubs, which he nicknamed Eeny, Meeny and Miny.
“It was the most amazing opportunity,” he said. And because of this, he saw it as a responsibility to tell her story.
“This is an individual. A neighbor. A mother with cubs.”
He hopes films like his make people more interested in protecting wildlife.
“If you fear it, you’re not going to protect it,” he said. “If you understand it, maybe you’ll change your mind.”
In addition, to his mountain lion film, he also has a series of six shorts, “Casey Anderson’s Wild Tracks,” premiering this month -- streaming on SmithsonianEarth.com, beginning March 26.
These are 4 to 7 minutes long and take viewers into the field to meet bighorn sheep, wolves, scavengers and mountain lions.
“They’re stories that go beyond wildlife documentaries,” he said, adding that he is using new and innovative ways to reach millennials and others who might not watch wildlife documentaries.
“I’m taking someone on a hike. I’m just their cool buddy who got them front row seats for a really cool event. And I’m going to tell them a story about what I’ve seen in a different way.
“And bighorn sheep are just one example. It’s one of the most insane battles on the planet.”
Anderson is also founder and director of Montana Grizzly Encounter Rescue and Educational Sanctuary in Bozeman, which is set up for grizzlies who are rescued from bad captivity situations. The sanctuary’s purpose is to educate the public about wild grizzlies.
On Tuesday, Anderson announced his newest exciting series which he heads out Thursday to start filming.
He’s traveling to the Himalayas, Patagonia and Africa to work on “Finding Beasts,” a new series on beasts thought to exist only in folklore or to be extinct.
The series was just announced by the Travel Channel and is expected to premiere in August.
And one day, Anderson could be visiting a few schools as the next Vince Yannone. It’s a dream he’s had, he said. He suspects that sitting in the audience there could be another Casey Anderson. “Hopefully a few more people will get inspired,” he said, “because the world needs it.”