Today's selection -- from American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee. The decline in elk herds in America:
"In the rest of America, hunting was dying. Rates of participation had been declining for decades -- only 6 percent of Americans still hunted. But in the Northern Rockies, it remained integral to the culture -- Montana had the highest number of hunters per capita, and Wyoming wasn't far behind. Women hunted, kids hunted, even wildlife biologists hunted. For some, it was less a sport than a means of supplementing the family food budget. Butchering a five-hundred-pound elk yielded upward of 250 pounds of meat for the freezer, enough to last an average family nearly a year, all for the price of a fifty-dollar hunting permit. When the Yellowstone elk herd was nineteen thousand strong, the animals were so plentiful in the woods adjacent to the park that for most subsistence hunters the driving principle was not fair chase but convenience. The elk closest to the road -- and to the back of the pickup, where the carcass had to be lugged -- was the right elk. Not every animal shot in the Northern Rockies ended up in a hunter's freezer -- many, if not most, bulls were taken purely for the trophy mount, but enough did that the precipitous decline in elk numbers meant at least some families were buying a lot more hamburger than they used to.
"Even for those who didn't need the meat or didn't hunt at all, the size and health of the elk herd was a matter of concern, something to talk about at the grocery store or at church, like hay prices or the performance of the local high school football team. The familiar sound of bugling bulls meant another autumn had come; arches made from elk antler sheds marked the entrance to many mountain towns -- Afton, Wyoming, was said to have the world's longest, extending all the way across Highway 89. Elk inspired people; they were a symbol of everything that was special about living here.
"These days everything seemed to be conspiring against elk and the people who hunted them. The cattle, for example, competed with elk for the best forage. Cattlemen and hunting guides had made common cause against the wolf but the truth was that they were far from natural allies. There were maybe eight or ten cattle operations in Crandall and Sunlight, almost all of them enormous and well capitalized. Most of the rangeland was unfenced acreage owned by the National Forest Service, which leased huge sections to cattlemen every summer, just as it had for decades on public lands throughout the Northern Rockies. The cattle were brought up into the mountains every spring when the snows melted and the acres and acres of lush green grass came back, then were hauled out in mid-October, before winter really set in.
"In the old days, it seemed to Louie, the cattlemen ran their cows higher in the mountains in the spring and summer. They wouldn't bring them down into the valleys, alongside the river and the road, until the first snows came in September. That meant there was still good forage left in the low-lying areas when the cattle were rounded up and hauled off to their winter range, and the elk started coming down into Crandall from Yellowstone, looking for something to eat. Now the Forest Service let the cattlemen run their cows right along the road all summer, taking the best grass for themselves. With the grass gone, the elk had no reason to linger in Crandall. The outfitters had complained about it, but the cattlemen had 'more politics,' as Louie put it.
"The ranchers, meanwhile, begrudged the elk for the grass they ate in the summer, especially when the big beasts left national forest land and came onto private ranches to graze on well-watered alfalfa. A tycoon named Earl Holding, the owner of Sinclair Oil, controlled most of the best leases in Crandall and Sunlight. Holding was the richest of the lot, but almost all the ranchers in the area were wealthy, and they weren't afraid to let everybody know it. Louie had seen drivers stop their trucks on the Chief Joseph Highway, unload their cattle right into the road, and then simply drive off, without even shutting anybody's gate, which was the neighborly thing to do. People would step out of their houses in the morning and find a dozen cows in their yard.
"The smart heifers stayed out of the road, but everyone was expected to drive around the dumb ones. Every now and then a visitor on his way to Yellowstone would plow into a black Angus beef at night, and you'd see a game department truck out the next day, hauling off the remains before the road was full of grizzlies looking for an easy meal."