By Maxwell Dougan
It may seem counterintuitive, but the more death you stumble upon in the woods, the higher your chances are of encountering abundant life. Though anecdotal, these pictures, all from the same drainage and the same month of the year, convey the stark contrast between the beauties and realities of exploring elk habitat with a healthy predator/prey dynamic.
Something that lingers in my mind as I’m watching elk in the hills is the basic understanding that mountain lion are undeniably present. This is generally true throughout the western states; if elk are present, so are lions. The landscape is littered with evidence of their proximity to you.
I sat across the canyon with my binoculars, thoroughly intrigued with the interactions unfolding in front of me. An elk herd of around fifty head and six mule deer were practically rubbing noses with one another. It was the first time I was able to observe both animals side by side. To those unfamiliar, I’ll attempt to explain their size difference as such; if deer are your average golden retriever, then elk are great danes.
One particular cow chewing her cud must’ve caught my scent. Her head shot up and began scanning the hillside in front of her and locked eyes with me. One by one, like prairie dogs protruding from their burrows, every single elk picked up their head and stared directly at me, a quarter mile away. The mule deer couldn’t pick up what the cows were putting down, as if some sort of language barrier required a few moments of translation. It wasn’t until the elk began finding their way out of the canyon over the opposite ridge on a well beaten trail that the deer followed suit, choosing an alternate route uphill.
I stayed put for some time as I watched them disappear over the horizon, one cow keeping watch as the others passed by, and then gave chase as the last cow was out of sight. I switch-backed down into the canyon, across a seasonal creek which was swollen over its banks from spring melt, through the dogwood and willows, floribundas and cottonwood, and up the rocky hillside. I went to the bowl where the herd was just feeding where I found a spinal column and skull on a blanket of ravaged fur. This scene can be rather unsettling. Not for the apparent reason of standing over a large mammal’s skeleton torn asunder, but because of the way that fur is often dispersed at a kill site, as if the animal was pressurized with air until it combusted. Intrigued by things of this nature, I picked up the skull and turned it over to see what kind of shape it was in. I got my answer. Maggots and a handful of other insects were taking care of the remaining brain matter. An amber puss began oozing from the eye socket, carrying with it an odor so offensive my eyes watered. The skull was placed back to rest for the scavengers to squabble over.
Up beyond the ridgetop, the land plateaued and I settled down again under a small stand of ponderosa pines, flushing mourning doves as I pushed my way through the maze of sagebrush. A grouse was perched somewhere above me, sending out its hauntingly beautiful call. Again, I observed the elk herd as they slowly worked across the landscape, feeding on bunchgrass. The sun began to fade behind the endless conifers to the west.
My hike up was over with, and I was happy to have a down hill amble back to the forest road.
Now, I know it wasn’t there when I parked, because I would’ve walked right by it, but about fifty feet from the car lay a dying rattlesnake. It had been run over toward the tail end of its body, and yellow jackets, a swarm of hundreds, had begun devouring the serpent from the inside out as it fought for its final breaths.
Like I said, a stark contrast.