Sunday, February 15, 2009

Six: a legendary elk on an iconic landscape

Dateline: Gardiner, Montana

I don’t have many claims to fame, and some of those are sufficiently dubious that I don’t care to recall them. I can, however, make this assertion with confidence: I spent more time, eyeball to eyeball, with Elk Number Six than did any other human being.

I don’t make this declaration lightly; hundreds of tourists watched this elk’s aggressive antics in the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone National Park. Additionally, his tendency to utilize certain yards in nearby Gardiner, Montana, as winter daybeds (notably PJ’s and Travis’) – and the hand-feeding of elk and deer in G-town – ensure that a select number of residents have indeed been in very close proximity to this particular elk at times.

Having said that, though, I still make the claim that I spent more time with Six than anyone else. You see, for most of the eight years I rangered at Yellowstone National Park, the arrival of crisp September nights and shortening days meant one thing with certainty: bull elk, following the lure of fertile cows, would appear in Mammoth Hot Springs for the rut. This group of bulls included such notable royalty as Six and Ten. My life would not be the same until November.

During those long weeks, I got to know all of the players – Ten and Brutus and Bumpy and Muddy and Stumpy and so on – very well. More often than not, though, it fell to me to share much of the daytime, and more evenings than I can count, with Six. This is not bragging, mind you, because much of that time was borderline miserable, at least for me. There were years when we weren’t more than a few blocks apart for the entire rut. I lost sleep on those all-too common nights when he circled my house, bugling all night. My relationships with friends and one lover were temporarily damaged by Six. I lost weight. Sometimes I damn near lost all perspective.

I got the calls when he was standing in front of the Mammoth Hotel irrationally slashing at anything and anyone that came close; people hated him. I got the calls when he was limping around Mammoth or when he was in Gardiner, in some alley or yard which was judged to be uncomfortably close to the hunt zone boundary; people were worried about him.

I was with him the first time he was dehorned and I personally put the dart in his butt the second time. I followed him late into the evening after both dehornings – bellowing, waving my arms, honking the horn, and once banging on a dumpster with a wrench to break up fights between Six and other bulls. Until he understood his antlers were gone, he would continue to challenge other bulls and he could easily have ended up mortally wounded in such a contest. Everyone knew that, but I was the only one so desperate to give him time to adjust to being weaponless that I stupidly followed him around in the darkness with a flashlight; as to what I would have done if I’d found myself between two furious 700-pound bull elk at night, I still have no clear idea.

In sum, then, I was with Six when he was frenetic from hormonal rage and when he was sedated. I was with him when he was healthy and when he was injured. I was there he was king of the proverbial Mammoth hill and I was there when he was beaten. I saw him during the zenith of his aggressive behavior towards the throngs of unwary humans, and perhaps most importantly, I witnessed him display remarkable acts of regal indifference and tolerance towards those same crowds.

For all the Number Six stories which people will tell - and people do love to spin yarns about Six - few if any of those tales will be poetic reminiscences of the time he did not charge into a group of clueless elderly people who inexplicably found themselves standing next to him. Or the time he charged, but did not contact, a man talking on his cell phone who never noticed the massive bull elk who could have easily driven an antler through man’s body, had he so chosen.

No, Six is famous for his tendency to damage cars and chase people. Much like Bear 264 or any number of identifiable wolves, Six had passed from reality into the realm of folklore years before his death. As such, the myth of Elk Number Six had already grown out of all proportion to the animal. Every day during the rut, someone would come up to me and tell me something new about Six – he’d killed a man a few years ago, he’d been shipped off to Canada but made his way back, that he was the 'son' of an elk that used to run around Mammoth in the 90s.

Stories like this will endure and Six will likely always be famous for his aggression. But the ironic truth is that his fame was a result of his tolerance. Six was figuratively born in the wildland-urban interface, of which Mammoth Hot Springs is a tenuous, but instructive, example. His notoriety wasn’t solely due to his belligerence; any number of elk are as willing and capable of inflicting damage on people and property. His fame came from the stage where he played out that violence. He charged, punctured, dented and threatened amid the paved streets and buildings of a pedestrian mall packed with loud, unpredictable, aromatic crowds of humans. Had Six been unleashed in a Billings shopping center, I doubt the risk of injury would have been significantly higher.

If not exactly enamored of mankind, Six was undeniably comfortable around humanity. During the rut, the most difficult time of an adult elk’s life, Six spent most of his time next to a busy gift shop, a post office and a fast-food joint. He stood in the road as cars and RVs rumbled by less than an arm’s length away. He chased people up steps onto the porch of the old Mammoth Engineers Building (the pagoda). He drowsed next to sidewalks teeming with boy scouts and tour groups. How many other wild animals, much less hormonally-enraged bull elk, would tolerate such close proximity to so much human activity for so long? As 'wild' as people considered him, Six was, in the parlance of wildlife management, habituated.

In conclusion, my familiarity with Six and his history lead me to make one more audacious assertion: his death was not, as Al understandably called it, a freak accident. It was a predictable outcome of his close association with humanity and our constructed environment. Over the years, I have seen many cases of habituated wildlife, from sea turtles and dolphins to coyotes and bears. In almost all of these situations, the animal eventually meets a premature demise, be it from carelessness around armed humans, coronary heart disease from eating our food, or being hit by a car. Six should have died on a snowy ridgeline in the company of winter cold and a mountain lion, or simply infirmity, but he died tangled in a fence behind a motel because that is representative of how he lived.

If I’m right and I spent more time with Six than anyone else, then it stands to reason that I learned more from Six than anyone else. I suspect that all the experiences which he bestowed on me in his distinctly inelegant way will take a lifetime to truly understand and appreciate. For that, I publicly thank the glorious, majestic, infuriating pain in the ass who was Elk Number Six.

Rest well, Six. If nothing else, you deserve that.

In a very real way, my life will never be the same

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