Bring on that old lanky dog (and be sure to eat the elk)

by Rob Cordery-Cotter
Writers on the Range

For my son’s last day of summer vacation, I took off from my veterinarian practice, and off we went to northern Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. We climbed around on some boulders, got rained on and we saw elk, lots of elk.

I have seen my share of elk throughout the West, but this particular group we observed were a ragtag group indeed. One bull sported last fall’s polished antlers still stuck on his head; several spike bulls carried stunted sets in velvet. The lady elk around them seemed utterly disinterested in this group of males, as if they were seriously considering forming a commune and foregoing the upcoming rut altogether. With boyfriends like that in the offing, who could blame them?

The aspen stands behind these elk had been pruned to precisely elk-snout height. We walked along a stream in the park and noticed that the willows lining its banks were pretty much chewed to the nubs.I am not the only one to have noticed the sorry-looking bulls, disenchanted cows and absence of shrubbery.

The Park Service is now examining various alternatives to deal with a surfeit of elk with little else to do but eat the place to the ground and collide with tourists’ automobiles. Proposed alternatives make for interesting reading; They include everything from “culling” elk with high-powered rifles to placing lady elk on the pill. I was nearly surprised not to see a faith-based initiative to preach abstinence to nubile young elk cows, but I digress.

Buried within the glossy summation of these alternatives was something even more creative: Alternative D, Wolf Reintroduction. This is an odd turn of events for an animal whose relationship with Westerners has been nothing but checkered. No doubt more than one string of Newhouse #14 leg-hold wolf-traps is still hanging around, oiled up and ready to go, in the odd shed or barn. For it wasn’t long ago that the extirpation of every last wolf constituted a national priority. (“We felt guilty and ashamed,” said one government wolf-hunter on strangling wolf pups dug out from their dens, “but it was our duty.”)

How did wolves get in our way? In the latter part of the 19th century, after market hunters had shot all the big game to feed the likes of Denver, ranchmen went on to stock the land with cattle. They did not take kindly to so many unemployed wolves about, particularly since the slow-elk known as cattle were so incapable of defending themselves. The wolves’ success was a major mistake. What Mr. Newhouse’s steel traps could not ensnare, strychnine and abrupt lead poisoning could kill with thoroughness.

In 1913-14, elk were hauled down from Yellowstone country and reintroduced into Rocky Mountain National Park. What market hunters had done, man would now undo. For millennia the wolf had been the stone that burnished the elk to magnificence, but with the wolf even by then a rapidly dimming memory, the elk population grew largely unchecked.

Until the late 1980s, hunting worked to slow the growth of the herds. Increasingly, though, land around the park became off-limits to hunting as human settlement grew. Habituated to humans, the elk sought refuge within the suburban landscape of Estes Park. Today, the guns of autumn can’t keep pace with the burgeoning herds.

Thanks to the Yellowstone experience, there’s another option: bringing wolves back into the picture. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the 1990s in part to help cull elk herds, to restore the balance, to bring the elk in line with what the land will carry. Eager tourists throng to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone to howl with these gangly predators; they just want to be among them. I have been there and seen the wolves’ neatly boned kills strewn among the late-summer grass, a windfall of carrion for the grizzly, the wolverine, the raven.

In and around Rocky Mountain National Park, there is chronic wasting disease, unsightly roadkill, beaten-down vegetation. From Yellowstone country the wolf looks on in amusement: “See what you have wrought?”

We know the wolf is on his way back to Colorado. Some already lope here all the way from Wyoming. Some, like the elk nearly a century ago, might just get the VIP treatment, a ride home in a government trailer plus three squares a day.

Welcome home, old lanky dog. Be sure and eat the elk.

Rob Cordery-Cotter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a veterinarian in the small town of LaPorte, Colorado.

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