I hear elk antlers knocking on my left. The bullish scene attached to the sound is out of sight past the basketball hoop on the east side of the house. I can also hear cows calling, their calves answering with youthful mewling. Wire fencing is all that separates me from the herd, but I respect the barrier. I can see and hear the action without interrupting the show.
I’m parked next to a vacant lot in a neighborhood watching the wild try to do its thing in the winter. Hooves are endlessly scratching at deep, crusty snow. Steps are slow and abrupt. Legs sink, belly drops, lift, and repeat. These several thousand elk don’t want to move unless they have to, and I don’t want to make them have to, so I’m quiet inside my truck. My kids are quiet, too, except for when they’re fighting over binoculars. I make them roll up their backseat window for that escapade.
Truthfully, I’m surprised I found a vacant lot in Jackson, Wyoming, because the little Western town has a big problem—lack of space. Property is at a premium, outpricing most of the people who work here. Those who can afford land in the valley of Jackson Hole have a hard time finding somewhere to build.
The area’s forefathers saw this coming a century ago and set aside a 24,700-acre meadow as the National Elk Refuge in 1912. A town built in Yellowstone’s backyard is bound to encroach on wildlife, and establishing the refuge in the early years is the only reason the meadow is still undeveloped and full of wild elk migrating to lowland in the winter.
You can tell this is a tough winter because the refuge, where hay is put out by congressional order, is well beyond hosting capacity, and dead elk spot the snowy flats. Fat reserves are running low, and winter snow is still piled high. This is make-or-break season for wildlife, and many are breaking.
One bull died on its way into the river, its rack propping its head up in the current while its back end is still on the bank. Two trumpeter swans cruise passed the corpse, reminding me remorse isn’t appropriate in a place like this. Wild is as wild does. I just get to watch.
Most of the watching happens on the highway west of the refuge, with turnouts available for tourists who want to watch the winter saga unfold. I stopped there first, but quickly moved on because tourists often do things to ruin the mood. Tourists like the guy from Washington, D.C. who flew his drone over the herd the day after I was there. He disrupted 1,500 elk, spooking them into a stampede for half a mile. The refuge issued him a $280 ticket.
I have a drone, too, but it’s certainly not out here. I don’t want to be responsible for depleting the last of this herd’s back fat. That’s why I’m still in my truck in the neighborhood when the elk stop calling and start running. A homeowner bordering the refuge let their dog out to do its backyard duty. Barking sends the herd on the move. A little more back fat gone. Not the disruption of a drone, but a fat burner nonetheless. We still have two months of winter to go. Drones, and dogs: let the wild be.
Kris Millgate is an outdoor journalist based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. See more of her work at tightlinemedia.com.