BOOKS: Hawk’s Rest

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2003:

Hawk’s Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone by Gary Ferguson
National Geographic Adventure Press (1145 17th St., N.W.,
Washington, DC 20036), 2003. 240 pages, paperback. $15.00.

Hawk’s Rest is not about birds, but the joys and trials of
living in wilderness. Here on nine million acres deep in Yellowstone
National Park, granite turrets rise 2,000 feet into the air, giant
boulders tumble into deep gorges, and ice forms endless lakes.
Yellowstone Lake, covering 136 square miles, can switch in minutes
from calm to waves thrashing five to six feet high. According to
park historian Lee Whittlesy, no body of water in the park and
perhaps in all of the U.S. is more dangerous. The water averages 45
degrees Fahrenheit, which gives swimmers about 20 minutes before
they must get ashore.


The weather in Yellowstone varies from sweat-drenched summers
in the Thorofare district to year-round squalls and blizzards in the
Beartooth Mountains.
Since the reintroduction of wolves in 1995, Yellowstone has
had all of the species known to have lived there within recorded
history, making it the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate
world.
This is what Gary Ferguson has wanted since he was a boy
growing up in Indiana, flat and tight as a fitted sheet. He climbed
oaks, maples, sycamores–anything for a view. When he saw a
Montana vacation kit, with maps and photos of snowcapped mountains,
he was eager to make the 3,000-mile round trip on his metallic purple
“Stingray” bicycle. Nine years later Ferguson arrived in a 1964
Pontiac.
An initially quiet summer recording bear tracks, making
notes about Delta wolf activity, and tracking elk for park
biologists turned into a 140-mile trek into the Thorofare, the most
remote area in the Lower 48, a place of bears and bugs and wild
winds, “where all but the best outfitted will freeze or sweat or be
blown batty.”
In exchange for living in Hawk’s Nest, a U.S. forest service
cabin, Ferguson and his friend LaVoy Tolbert, education director of
a wilderness therapy school for at-risk teens, mend fences, greet
camp visitors, and watch for poachers and outfitters illegally
salting sites to lure elk within shooting range, in effect setting
up canned hunts without fences.
Ten thousand elk now roam Yellowstone and the northern Teton
wilderness. The elk attract grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, and an
occasional mountain lion, who are in turn followed by scavenging
eagles, foxes, badgers, and beetles.
Elk poaching, however, has always afflicted Yellowstone. From 1875
to 1877, for example, 7,000 elk were poached for their hides. This
so enraged naturalists and legal hunters that the Lacey Act became
the first significant conservation law in U.S. history.
But the elk were still in trouble. The arrival of settlers
in Wyoming brought towns, ranches, and fences that separated elk
herds from the pastures they depended upon. Five thousand hunters
converged to massacre elk who were trapped by the first big snowstorm
in November 1896, depressing the population for decades.
After the elk rebounded somewhat, thousands starved in
severe winters at Jackson Hole. The town of Jackson eventually
donated funding for hay, leading to the creation of the nearby
National Elk Refuge, where elk continue to be fed each winter. But
artificial feeding left the elk unnaturally concentrated and
vulnerable to disease.
As far back as 1911, officials proposed cull hunts, which
finally began about 20 years later. Estimating the winter carrying
capacity at 5,000, park staff killed elk each fall, but the herd
still grew, peaking at about 10,000–the present population–in
1961. Finally, shooting 5,000 elk during the winter of 1961-1962,
the Yellowstone staff got the herd down to the presumed carrying
capacity and kept it there until 1967. Used to killing elk who
wandered out of the park, irate hunters now couldn’t find any.
Acting on the hunters’ behalf, Senator Gale McGee of Wyoming used
his influence to halt the winter culls.
Hunters and outfitters were happy for the next 30 years, but
because they tended to shoot mostly bucks, skewing the population
toward females, the elk herd doubled to 20,000 by the time wolves
were reintroduced to restore balance.
Much of Hawk’s Rest focuses on the efforts of Yellowstone
back country ranger Bob Jackson to restrain elk poaching, from 1969
until his forced retirement this winter at age 55. Most of the
poachers Jackson has nabbed over the years have been licensed hunters
and outfitters whom he has caught using illegal tactics such as
salting to lure elk.
A former hunter and trapper himself, now a bison rancher,
Jackson ran afoul of Republican politics with a 1998 memo suggesting
that grizzly bears were not recovering from endangered species status
in part because the gut piles left by elk hunters were luring the
bears into frequent deadly conflict with armed humans. Outfitters
long annoyed by Jackson’s enforcement of the anti-salting provisions
of the Wilderness Act united with foes of grizzly bear restoration to
pressure the National Park Service to fire him. They at last
succeeded in 2001. Jackson returned–for two seasons–with the help
of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Hawk’s Rest was published while the outcome of the Jackson
case was still unknown, and Ferguson does not actually encounter
Jackson during the last third of the time the book covers. At that
point Ferguson is somewhat skeptical of Jackson. The conduct of elk
hunters and outfitters themselves, however, eventually persuades
Ferguson that Jackson’s views of them are well-founded.
“I’m constantly amazed at the degree to which outfitters are
wrapped in a victim mentality,” Ferguson writes. “Emerging from
this profession, at least in the Thorofare, is mean-spirited
paranoia, a constant griping about wolves and city people and
anti-hunting groups destroying a way of life. In short, it has
become one of the most self-indulgent whine-fests ever to unfurl in
the land of the Great Divide.”
For example, one outfitter tells Ferguson that “Without the
gut piles hunters leave in the fall, grizzly bears would be in real
trouble.”
Ferguson touches off an explosion by observing aloud that “With
carcasses and gut piles being so important to grizzlies, we should
take our hats off to the wolves, since their kills leave thousands
of pounds of meat across the ecosystem–not just in hunting season,
but throughout the year.”
–Suzanne Morrow

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