In the winter of 1964, some time after Christmas, an old bull elk stumbled down through the steaming terraces of Mammoth Hot Spring. It was a bitter cold and windless night in the far northwest corner of Wyoming. Snow was smeared in streaks and patches on the frozen ground, except for the hot zones where the geothermal water oozed. In the silence, you could hear the tiny hissing and burping of the boiling water striking the cold January air. The elk passed in and out of ragged wisps of steam. His ribs and shoulder blades pressed out through his scruffy hide. He was starving. Like a ghost, he drifted across the road with the steam, and took up a position behind a dark clump of juniper. His head drooped towards the ground. I know, because I saw him there the next morning. The juniper he picked was about 50 feet from the path that I took with my brother each day to school. Together with a gang of 4 or 5 other kids in brown work boots, blue jeans and quilted down parkas, we climbed up the broken travertine terrace and spotted the elk.
We eyed each other. Time was running short for all of us. The elk was dying. We were late for school. We continued up the mountain with a few fitful backward glances, our destiny well within our own means. The elk swung his head slowly, waiting for his. On our way home from school, we raced down the mountain, feet skidding and arms flailing, to see if the elk was dead. Not yet. He stood still, trembling slightly, staring at us with eyes that seemed to have gone milky with cataracts. We shuffled our feet, disappointed – then continued on down to our houses in their neat set of double rows in the valley below.
In the evening, my Dad reloaded his cartridges. They were shiny yellow brass, long and sensuous like a lipstick, with dark scars where the burning gunpowder left its residues. They stood in line on a small round tray, while the new black powder poured down into each of them in turn, a carefully measured little pile of black sand. Then Dad would press down on a small metal handle, and a bright copper bullet was pressed snugly into the end of the shell. Now instead of standing there with its gaping mouth hanging open, each cartridge was capped with this glittering, lethal, aerodynamic crown. Bullets were cool.
Every morning on my way to school, I could look up and see a helicopter thumping overhead. It was Dad, flying away up the Lamar valley on his way to work. During the course of the day, he would fire most of those reloaded cartridges into the elk that he spotted from the helicopter. That killed them quicker than starvation, which was their other choice. The rangers called this activity elk reduction. There were no wolves in the park then, and few other predators. The coyotes were so stuffed on dead elk that they couldn’t be bothered to attack them while they were still standing. So the elk stood and waited. For the ones who were still far from the roads, where no one would see them, the helicopters might come. Those who drifted in close to the roads and houses, like the one next to our school path, were on their own. The news media of that time were nothing like the snarling hoard that scavenges for sensationalism everywhere today. But the rangers knew better than to create an incident in full view of the road.
It was against the policies of Yellowstone Park and the Department of the Interior to feed animals in the park. So no one brought the starving bull anything to eat. It was not against park policy to shoot the animals, however. That hadn’t been against the rules for a long time. That’s what had happened to the wolves. By the time I lived there, they were all gone. When bears misbehaved, by coming right into the campgrounds and begging for food, that’s what happened to them too. First they would make a big public show of darting the bear with a hypodermic full of succinyl choline. It made the bear get soggy and fall asleep. Then the rangers would hustle the limp body into a pickup, arguable to be taken to a safer place. The tourists loved it. Often, the bear never woke up. If it was one who was coming back into the campgrounds over and over, they made sure it didn’t wake up. It was my Dad’s job to drag the bear carcasses away into the woods where tourists wouldn’t see them. Most of the horses wouldn’t do it. They bucked, shied, looked crazy in the eyes and ran off. Rex the wonder horse, an old palomino gelding who lived at the south entrance to the park, would pull bears. Rex would stand patiently if a small boy approached him, drawn by the salty, sweet smell of his warm yellow hide. My eyes came just to the level of his powerful chest. I would bury my face in his mane, and he would look around calmly, making a small, wet sound with his nose. He was telling me not to worry. I gave Rex his name, which was the same as the one written on my own plastic riding horse. It was mounted on springs to a metal frame, and I would rock back and forth on it for hours, pulling imaginary bears out into the back woods.
The bears were dumped about a half mile behind the barn, near on old pioneer grave. The girl buried there was named Betsy Roebottom. The bears were left not far from Betsy’s simple headstone. I knew where they were, because sometimes Dad let me ride on the back of the saddle, holding on to the taut pull rope as if it was an important job that needed done. The bears were strung out in a ragged line under the dense lodgepole pines. Some were just bones. Ravens stood on top of them and yelled at us.
Without their key predators, the elk population exploded. The park was being stripped of forage. Elk were starving. It hadn’t occurred to the employees of the Park Service back in the 1920’s. They thought of predators as bad park citizens who caused unnecessary pain and suffering. They also thought of themselves as the masters of the Park, who could easily manage this unruly system and make it better. When a wolf attacked and throttled a week-old elk calf, they interpreted that as a bad thing. And it was, if you were the elk calf. It seems odd, looking back, that the rangers seemed to identify personally with a large grazing animal, and not with a small, highly social predator that hunted cooperatively in packs. Because really, that’s exactly what the rangers were themselves. Perhaps they looked on the wolves as competitors trying to invade their territory.
By the time I was living there, the park rangers knew that they weren’t the masters of anything. They couldn’t even get the government to pay for the bullets that they used to kill off the elk. But I think Dad liked to reload his cartridges – he probably would have done it anyway. The rangers also knew by then that the animals that had no guns were better ecosystem managers than the animals who did. It was a joke. All of the rangers understood that in 1964, in Montana, no one was going to get permission to bring back a predator like the wolf. At night, other rangers would come to the house and talk about it while they drank beer and Mom baked them cookies. They sounded bitter and angry and defeated, and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just go get some wolves. As I got older, I would begin to know the NPS, the IRS, the DEA, the FDA, FEMA, INS, HSA – all of them. I am often stopped from getting on airplanes for improperly exposing my liquids. Now I see what was stopping the rangers. Forty years would go by before they would finally get enough momentum to do what was right. Many of the ones drinking beer in my father’s house would not live long enough to see it happen.
The next day, the elk had moved. Maybe he went off in the night for a drink of water. We found him out in the open, lying down, still looking at us with those glazed eyes. For one last day, he lay there like a statue. The next morning it was snowing lightly, and coyotes and ravens were milling around him in the frosty morning air. His stomach was torn open, and his head was finally down on the ground. Dark, round, empty sockets stared blankly off into space. Magpies bickered about who got to perch in his antlers. We threw rocks at the coyotes, and then milled around his body ourselves, poking at it with sticks. Satisfied, we raced off to tell our parents.