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Managing nature, or not, at the National Elk Refuge

Posted by: Adam Aston on February 11, 2008


Last week, after a couple of days of skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, some friends and I decided to take a day off. We drove a few miles out to the edge of town to check out the National Elk Refuge. As an apartment-dwelling city-kid, I didn’t even know we had a National Elk Refuge. For me, it’s hard to imagine that there could be enough open land anywhere — not bisected by highways, strip malls, or cul de sacs — to hold so many wild animals, roaming across so many square miles of open land. Yet there they were: 10,000-plus elk who had meandered here from further north, idling peacefully on a vast, wind-blasted plain just off the two-lane highway that heads out Jackson.

As we rumbled out toward the heard in a horse-drawn sled, listening to our rosy cheeked guide (who seemed utterly immune to temperatures in the teens), the first thing I learned is that elks are very silly creatures. The bulls’ antlers grow to absurd proportions — easily 20 or more pounds of bony matter perched atop their heads. Any rose-bush nibbling deer from back east would have to regard these distant relatives with awe, and wonder what these over-sized antlers, reaching up to four feet over the elk’s head, could possibly be good for. Growing these huge horns consumes a major share of the males’ energy for much of the year.

Once mating season begins, the antlers are put to use in a slow melee of head butting, goring, and antler wrestling, sometimes to the death. This ruckus determines a pecking order so that the toughest elk, often but not always with the biggest rack, gets to inseminate the most does and father the most offspring. Darwin does it again.

In a cruel twist, soon thereafter the horns are shed in short, simultaneous burst. A few weeks later, it all starts again. Each bull begins to slow down, eating steadily to conserve energy to grow a new rack that will emerge –- as if by magic -– nearly identical to the prior year's rack, if maybe a bit bigger. Wow. Go elk.

This annual rhythm leaves the fields littered with so many horns that nearby townsfolk have had to come up with creative ways to make use of them. Every other corner seems to be adorned with a 30-foot tall Arc de Triomphe made of elk horns. Massive elk-horn chandeliers and elk-horn coffee seem to be gathering dust in practically every bar and time share.

The next thing I learned was sadder. This open plain outside Jackson is regular stop in a migratory pattern that the elk have followed with little trouble for millennia. That is, until the last century or so, when the first human settlers appeared in this hard-to-access plateau. For the same reason the elks' preferred the area as a wintering ground, settlers figured it would make a good place to raise cattle. No surprise, the imports didn't prosper in the harsh, high country and it wasn’t very long before the cattle herds retreated.

Today, the range is once again the elks' alone. But the imported cattle left behind a host of infectious, debilitating diseases. The most apparent is a kind of mange -- as in dogs, a skin disease which causes patches of fur to disappear -- that can be seen in the mottled, thinning fur of even the biggest, best antlered bucks like the fellow above. Normally, elk are exquisitely evolved to hunker down happily in extremely cold weather. Down to 40 below, their bodies regulate blood flow to warm their cores and retard circulation in their spindly legs to prevent heat from radiating away. Yet without full fur cover, the elks loose insulation and can die of exposure, a guide explained, at temperatures they would otherwise be comfortable in. Worse than the mange is form of chronic brucellosis, a bacterial infection common in the elk that was introduced from cows imported from Europe. Plus the elk now carry CWD, a spongiform disease of recent occurrence that is a relative of the "mad cow disease" that haunts the beef industry.

The deeper irony -- or tragedy -- is that these imported diseases weakens the herds, making it harder for them to breed and over winter. To give them a hand, state and federal land managers have begun to feed the herds. Yet the feeding programs draw more animals into tighter proximity, perpetuating the spread of infection and making it harder to imagine ever eradicating the disease, short of dramatic culling of the herd. It's a sad catch-22.

Watching these animals digging at the snow to excavate natural forage and searching for errant bits of feed, they are an astonishingly vibrant and accessible reminder of the scale of nature. But seeing some of the sicker elk crane their heads back and use their huge antlers to scratch off more bits of precious fur is heartbreaking, and triggers a cascade of conflicting questions. Which ones will make it through the next deep freeze, one wonders? And what, then, is the best policy to pursue for their healthy survival? Feed them or let the infected ones die, so as to fortify the population to a more natural, less managed state? Wouldn’t it be better if these animals had been left to themselves? But then maybe “natural” just isn’t possible any longer.

To learn more about the elks' conundrum, check out this report by Bruce Smith, a career wildlife biologist with the US Dept of the Interior.

Here's a recent Washington Post story of how an Elk overload is hurting saplings, and stressing out all the bugs, other animals, and birds that depend on the same ecosystem. Possible remedies: permitting more predators in, birth control, or "lethal reduction".

Photo by Niko Triantafillou



BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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