On a recent Monday, as I was hiking near treeline in a quiet part of Rocky Mountain National Park, I rounded a corner to see a gigantic bull elk. He hadn’t seen me, but ran down the open hillside to a creek, where he pawed at the water and thrashed at it with his antlers, sending up silver curves of droplets and a splashing sound through the small valley. He then slowed to drink.
As I grabbed my camera and clicked off a couple of shots, I noticed he wasn’t alone. On the trail ahead of me were two more bulls, smaller than the first, looking intently in my direction. I snapped a couple more shots then put the camera away, to spare the elk and me its artificial clicking sound and to let me fully enjoy the moment.
While the two bulls and I continued to gaze at each other, another poked its head around a bend in the trail that was between us, only 30 feet away. He halted, and commenced staring at me. After a moment, I saw a flicker of an expression that I recognized from home in D.C. Suddenly, I got it—although there was grass around me, I was blocking the trail. His trail.
Slowly, I backed up to a cluster of trees behind and to my right. The elk continued to stare for a few more minutes, then looked away and moved into the evergreens to the left, dropping his head and grazing quietly.
Soon, another face topped by antlers appeared at the trail’s bend, and the same dance ensued. One by one, five bull elk, one a half-grown calf, stood at the trail’s bend and regarded me for several minutes each before stepping into the trees behind the leader. Never before had I such a strong feeling that I had walked uninvited into someone’s living room. Only the granddaddy failed to appear at the bend; he lay down in the cool stream for a long soak, his giant antlers poking above the tundra.
After the entire inspection team slipped into the trees, the largest bull stopped plucking grass, lifted his head and stared at me again. I could clearly see his broad, bony face and the fierce white whiskers under his chin, and I could sense his power. He had about him the look of lawlessness, of energy and defiance. After a long spell of examining me, he grunted. I replied quietly, “It’s okay,” and I showed him my palms, by then holding onto my extended trekking poles that, with my wits and the trees, were my only defense should he turn angry.
And immediately he dismissed me, going back to his breakfast and wandering after the herd. Perhaps he was wondering why there were tears coursing down the face of this strange animal with the odd red-and-black fur, the black square eyes and the blue humped back. They were tears of inexplicable emotions upon seeing such beautiful wild creatures up close, but surely they couldn't appreciate that.
I was wondering how to explain, without it sounding trite, the magnificence of these animals, how to put into words the size of them, bigger than any horse I’ve ever ridden, and how it felt to interact with them for those few moments, across the boundaries of species and worlds. How it felt, most importantly, to touch their wildness. I found it easy to pinpoint my sorrow that while these elk appear strong and free, they are vulnerable to changes in the climate, pollution and policy decisions being made by humans they will never see, and who will never see them.
As if on cue, two days later I received an action alert from the National Parks Conservation Association saying that the elk in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park were too healthy in number, and that NPCA would like me to ask the Park Service, as a temporary measure, to cull the herd by gun while working for a long-term solution, which also involves hunting but on lands outside the park.
I understand that a strained ecosystem ultimately will result in pain for the elk and other species, and that we must address the issue. Yet I have to wonder if some of the other options originally proposed, or some other not fully explored options still are better for the elk, and even why we’re not considering a more natural approach of reintroducing predators.
The elk are overpopulated because human activities have thrown nature out of balance. This is not their fault; it is ours, and we are choosing to solve the problem by shooting them. It is one thing for an elk to be killed to feed a wolf or a mountain lion or a hungry human. It is another thing altogether for humans to choose killing that elk as the easiest solution to a human-induced problem. Is this truly the best solution for the elk? Or is it simply the one we like the best for reasons of politics, finances or convenience? Have we fully explored all alternatives that might allow us to solve this issue without sending in a small army? I don’t have all the answers, but I think about those bulls, and I want us to make these decisions with the greatest thought and consideration for them.
Back in Rocky Mountain National Park, after the group nonchalantly noshed and moved away and granddad steeped in his tub, I headed on to the summit of Mount Chiquita and the views of mountains for miles around. On my way back that afternoon, far below the place where I first had seen the elk, I spotted motion in the distance. There were three bulls grazing. The largest raised his head and looked toward me. I showed him my palm and waved. He dropped his head back to his forage, and I proceeded to my car and what we call civilization, reluctantly away from the wilderness.