The first time I visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming I was just thirty years old, green in judgment and what my friends who worked coal in Tennessee called “too city.” It was late summer, the snow on the Teton range was blinding, and there was a sense of relaxed purpose from passersby. I walked to the center square and saw the high corner arches created from elk horns.
In my ignorance, I did not know that elk shed their horns each spring. I thought elk were like elephants or rhinos, keeping one set of tusks lifelong. So, I stood in the center of that sunny square suddenly overwhelmed by a vision of a great elk slaughter to harvest their horns. But the people of the town didn’t look like elk slaughterers. I asked a friendly woman in a clothing store about the horns.
She explained that elk historically came down from the high grazing ranges each fall and migrated south to lower altitudes. Unfortunately, as Jackson Hole grew, it blocked their migration route, bottling thousands of them up in the long valley north of town. So, the people of Jackson Hole sledded hay and fodder to the elk each winter. And harvested their horns in March and April.
During that first visit, I decided that, one day, I would return to help feed the elk. And, chastened by my ignorance, learn more about them. Elk are the largest of the deer family, which also includes caribou and moose. Maybe it’s coincidence, but their names are both singular and plural. I guess nobody could figure out the plural of “moose.” Mooses? Meese? Leave well enough alone.
Through conservation and relocation, significant populations of elk are now found in the western U.S. and Rocky Mountain regions. Smaller pockets of elk can be found in various Midwestern states, such as South Dakota and Minnesota, and small populations have been established in eastern states including Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Over the years, our family has enjoyed seeing these massive creatures in our national parks. Olympic, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone are favorites. We also found Tule elk in Point Reyes, California. A bull’s antlers can weigh as much as twenty pounds, but they can’t be taken as souvenirs without permission. Other creatures of the forest chew on the antlers for needed micronutrients. Nothing goes to waste in nature.
One of the most eerie sounds I’ve heard is a bull elk bugling. It’s a high-pitched song that echoes through the mountains. It’s even more impressive when one can see clouds of cold air coming from his mouth as he sings. There’s a picture of a bull bugling above.
Though I’ve visited Jackson Hole often since the first time, Nancy and I were in our seventies before we came to feed the elk. We discovered the government had designated the area as a national elk refuge and taken over the feeding program. No romantic sleigh ride onto snowy fields to pitch hay to the gathered animals. Now, a big sled loaded with food pellets is dragged out to the meadows. The deer like it and thrive. However, we could take a sled ride into the refuge to be among the elk. It was a memorable visit.
So, as with elk and many other things, it is important to remember carpe diem. Seize the day, don’t delay. You might miss the chance to feed the elk.