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Managing nature, or not, at the National Elk Refuge

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.