October 12, 2008

The Mammoth Hot Springs Elk & People Rodeo

Photo by Chas S. CliftonElk wandering on the lawn of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. Note the bull on the left. Click to embiggen.

I don't know how long that semi-tame elk have hung out around the hotel and old Fort Yellowstone grounds. I'm sure that decades ago, it was the easiest way for visitors to see them. But encouraging bears with open garbage dumps made them easy to see too, yet the Park Service abolished that practice eventually.

When we visited on Oct. 3, the rut was in full swing, I could see at least five bulls from the steps of the visitor center (the old Army post's BOQ). Two had harems and were acting acutely aware of each other, with occasional bugling and aggressive body language--at a safe distance.

But the park rangers were in a bigger lather than the bulls.

At the visitor center we had Anna Pigeon with a bullhorn herding visitors around: "You're between two bulls!! Up on the porch!!!"

Someone in a patrol car dashed back and forth, light bar flashing, flicking his siren, and barking confusing orders at drivers over his PA system: "Stop! Go! Turn! Stop!"

Another ranger placed orange cones on sidewalks and driveways, constantly rearranging them as the elk moved around. It was almost an artistic performance.

M. made various dry comments about "testosterone poisoning," referring, I think, to the bull elk.

I thought of UN peacekeepers in Bosnia: Lots of activity, but no real effect on the conflict.

But then the Park Service is 20 percent about preservation and 80 percent about crowd control. (Or maybe that should be 10:90.)

M. and I waited until the rangers' attention was elsewhere, then strolled towards where the Jeep was parked. Someone shouted through a bullhorn--I gestured towards the parking lot and kept going. And we left.

I suppose that if they are going to have semi-tame elk, they could bring in some semi-tame wolves. Then no one would have to leave the hotel to see nature in the raw. Visitors could sit in the lovely Art Deco hotel dining room, listening to the big-band music on the sound system, and watch predation in the parking lot.

Or they could start discouraging elk from hanging around the hotel complex.

UPDATE: Yellowstone's web site has a page of videos of people getting too close to elk and buffalo. You can watch rutting elk attacking cars at Mammoth. But given the road layout, there is no other way for drivers to go, so why does the NPS allow the "tame" elk?

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