I’ve been lucky enough to have some pretty unique wildlife experiences in my life so far, both in a professional capacity as a biologist and in my personal life as a junkie for all things wildlife. Each of those experiences is generally accompanied by a range of emotions, but some stand out as more poignant and important to me, and those kind of critical human reactions to wildlife encounters are often most present when I am doing something that connects me to human instincts long suppressed. Whether it’s the primal alarm going off in my brain when I am crawling into an occupied bear den, or the senses that seem to suddenly sharpen while standing chest deep in a Florida swamp at night, that link to what early man likely felt when we were much more connected to the natural landscape has become very significant to me. I never really thought I’d get that kind of primitive emotional response from following a herd of elk, but here we are.
I grew up in a place/family where elk were a bit of mainstay. With herds scattered around the Western Montana valleys and elk steaks a common dinner staple in my home, elk never drew much interest from me, a child that was much more fascinated with the animals that ate elk than the elk themselves. This mindset changed drastically when I started hunting elk in the Bitterroot Mountains with my dad and brothers. The boring, cow-like animal of my childhood turned into a mythical creature that was always one step ahead. I was a poor hunter and gained a massive amount of respect for elk, who would always hear me coming and disappear before I even had the chance to raise my rifle.
Rarely have I had the opportunity or ability to get very close to wild elk outside of a National Park or Refuge setting, and I decided to rectify that when driving along Highway 150 near Zapata Ranch in late winter. I spotted the herd of elk while driving the short distance between Zapata and Great Sand Dunes National Park. With the entire afternoon relatively open to me, I parked my car and decided to walk the mile or so across the prairie to the elk grazing in the distance. Stepping over prickly pear and greasewood and doing my best to walk in the sand so as to muffle my footsteps, I soon found myself close enough to the herd to be able to smell their musty odor in the wind. Having been at this point before as a young elk hunter with the end result almost always being me catching a glimpse of a retreating herd, I decided to slow down and take the necessary time to get closer. After about 20 min of staying low and keeping to the bottom of the small hills surrounding me, I rounded the top of a small sand dune to see the entire herd of 200+ elk spread out before me. I was immediately hit with a feeling of being part of a shared experience that goes back to early human history. While I was trying to get close enough to these elk to take a photo, primitive man, First Nations people, and European colonists all took the same kind of cautious and tentative steps through the sagebrush as I did. I sat there for an hour, watching the herd forage and pay their contribution to the delicate balance of the mountain prairie ecosystem. Without the elk, bison and other ungulates in the valley, vegetation will grow uninhibited, ultimately leading to poor soil condition and large-scale collapse within the system. After an hour of watching/photographing the herd, I stood up and 200 heads immediately turned in my direction, eyes fixed on me, waiting for my next move. I slowly crept back down the dune, and when the herd decided I wasn’t a threat, they went back to business as usual.
I see elk differently now. They aren’t just the oblivious prop of a Yellowstone drive, nor the whisper-quiet phantom of a Bitterroot hunting trip. They are an essential linchpin in the story of both natural ecology and human settlement in the American West. They are key players in the overall fate of the prairie, and the Zapata is a better, more complete place for having them on the landscape.
Wildlife biologist Wes Larson, also known as Griz Kid for his frequent work with bears, spent some time at the Zapata tracking down and photographing a few of the ranch’s most iconic wildlife species.