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From time to time I intend to publish a story from Yellowstone and other wild places rather than social commentary, nature notes, journal entries and other ramblings. The following, “Death Takes A Wapiti” was inspired by a mid-winter driving and wildlife watching trek four or so years ago in Yellowstone, the world’s first national park.
DEATH TAKES A WAPITI
The early morning streaked and striated sky glows like a hearth of red hot coals against the winter blanket below. Several bull bison loiter in a roadside pullout, their exhalations heavy and steaming in the chill air. Eerie calm and quiet prevail. The only sounds are the clicking and croaking of a pair of mated ravens, the tapping of woodpeckers on nearby snags, and crunching noises made by boots on snow as I rustle around to stay warm. The crisp smell of freshly fallen snow on sagebrush pierces the air.
A massive six point bull elk, or wapiti, staggers toward the road after struggling up an embankment. Every step looks labored, deliberate. The bull looks left, revealing encrusted lacerations arcing from below his right ear to the top of his sternum. His coat is mangy. His eyes appear weary, as if autumns consumed by thwarting challengers from breeding cow elk in his harems were now fading behind him.
His injuries most likely stem from facing down the resident Leopold wolf pack, or perhaps the Nez Perce wolves, also hungering for vulnerable elk. Cackling magpies and gathering ravens stare from glacial boulders as the bull crosses the road to feed on a snow-free slope, the smell of impending death looming, luring the lone wapiti and the scavengers together.
I drive on, wondering whether by nightfall a 600-pound carcass will appear out in the sagebrush flats that will stave off starvation for other wildlife in Yellowstone. The next morning I scour the area from Lava Creek to Blacktail Ponds for telltale signs of death. No mobs of magpies or ravens lingering, no blood or bones or tufts of fur scattered in the snow, no coyotes nervously snatching chunks of meat while watching their backs for wolves.
Did the wapiti wander away from the road to die? Did he encounter the Leopolds a final time? Did he survive somehow, only to die another day or another season? More snow and the shifting of seasons will surely bury the clues to his fate. Yellowstone’s dance of death and life endures, indifferent to the concerns and dramas of its human observers.