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Elk petroglyph, 1000-2000 years old, at White Mountain. This site in Wyoming’s Red Desert is in the center of vital elk winter range for herds of the southern Wind River Mountains.

***

Last night I walked out to the garbage cans behind our apartment building carrying a plastic bag in one hand and a hammer in the other. Inside the plastic bag were three imperfectly scraped bones, caveman size. When I opened the back door I saw the glow of two cigarettes, both flickering on the inhale, floating over my worksite. “Don’t mind me,” I warned them. “No worries,” one replied with a laugh, but they flicked their butts into the coffee can and left. For the best, I thought. I dumped the bones out with a clatter on the concrete pad, kneeled down, and stated breaking them into pieces—possible only because I’d scored them with a hacksaw, twice on the shafts and once in the bulbous joints, an exertion in itself on my slick kitchen counter. When pieces of marrow knocked out into the snow I put them back in the bag.

The bones were from the legs of an elk I shot in November. They were also the last best way to identify that this object of so much recent home industry was recently a living and breathing animal. We already ate the tongue (shaved onto crackers with a horseradish spread), the heart (grilled with onions and peppers), the enormous liver (blended into pate), and plenty of muscle– ground, grilled, fried, broiled, and stewed. The hide was removed in stages from my work area by a pine marten, which I later live trapped and released. And the head and abdomen remain on a ridge, 1500 feet above Hebgen Lake. But even those haven’t gone to waste: ravens circled me within half an hour of the fatal shot, and coyote tracks already gridded the area.

I’ve gone hunting since I was in grade school. That is, I’ve tagged along with friends and family. But it was decades before I ever considered shooting something for myself. What was it? The answer might be as simple as this: spending time in the mountains. Ted Kerasote called elk “the distillate of this country,” and the country he referred to isn’t far from mine. Harvesting an elk weakens the distinction between developed and undeveloped land. By allowing us to make use of the surpluses of minimally developed and ecologically intact land, it prevents the need to sacrifice more land to industrial-scale development. And fortunately, elk get strong in this rugged country.

The broken bones went into the crockpot along with a pile of gristly scraps that were too tough for steak and too tough for the grinder. They turned into three quarts of excellent broth, and that will turn into soups and marinades and gravies.

It’s a rather disturbing thing to think about—the means by which a magnificent animal turns into so many parts. But by using as much of the animal I can I am finding a way to appreciate its complexity, and, paradoxically, appreciate its life. This is a well-worn claim that often strikes me as absurd: self-serving and too convenient. I can also say that, now that I’ve killed and dismantled large game, it feels true. Lately I’ve been reading about elk, learning about their habitat and population trends, thinking about where they are spending this awfully cold and hostile time of the year. I’ve stopped buying beef, the product of an industry that partitions open land with barbed wire fences, ensnaring so many of the hooved animals that need to cross them, and drastically reducing the land’s capacity for diversity. Sometimes hunting feels political to me—the work of an activist.

But hunting rarely looks this way. The week I moved to Livingston I went to a public meeting in the ballroom of the Pioneer Lodge. It was standing room only; several hundred people, all of them probably white, at least ninety percent male, and dressed in denim, canvas, camouflage, wool, showed up to hear the speaker—a petite biologist named Karen Loveless. Loveless is a State wildlife biologist who recently summarized the discoveries of a long-running study with disturbing results. Brow tine bulls in the Northern Range, one of the greatest elk herds in the ecosystem, numbered about one to every fifty cows. This is five percent or less of what a natural ratio looks like, and the best way of accounting for the irregularity is the ‘unlimited tag’ of Hunting District 313. Where the Northern Herd passes through a natural bottleneck, any hunter that wants (and many of them do) can drive up a road, park, sit there and knock off a passing bull. It is a scene that has been described as a bloodbath, a disgrace. Some seasons, an average of ten bull elk are killed on that district for every day of the hunting season.

How did it get so bad? The lobbying of Montana’s association of commercial outfitters, who benefit when hunts are easy and predictable. A gross amount of local entitlement, people looking to sanctify ‘the way it’s always been done.’ Kill rates have actually climbed as the numbers continue to plummet. The meeting was supposed to be strictly informational, with questions limited to clarification requests, but they took the form of conspiracy theories and accusations and innumerable references to wolves. Never have I seen such a clear depiction of the sort of exploitational mob mentality that fucks up the American West on routine basis. Missing was the concern, “here’s some very clear evidence that the resource we all rely on is tanking because we’re not using it responsibly.” No, here, where technology did not evolve with the environment, there are a lot of powerless-feeling people with more power-to-destroy than they know what to do with, demanding the right to let rip.

*

Hunters, like climbers, are now a demographic to which I belong but do not relate. But the activity is meaningful to me; more meaningful than most.

My elk was two and a half years old, a cow. You can’t do any better in terms of size and quality of meat. Before I shot her I followed tracks for over an hour through steep north woods choked with downfall. Wherever the animal laid down I found blood stains in the snow, and I was inspired by the idea of finding an animal that had already been wounded by another hunter; wounding loss is one of the least talked about and most disturbing realities of hunting.

The tracks led uphill until the grade leveled out and the sun broke through the scattered trees. As I topped out I could see an animal’s head just around the bole of a tree. The stalk was incredibly suspenseful. I crept slowly but my glasses fogged with anxiety. Finally I took to crawling through eight inches of powder to prop my rifle on a down tree. From that position, only an alert ear could be seen standing above the reclined rump. I set the crosshairs above the ear and waited. When the elk lifted her head I heard an explosion and the head fell back down. Two other elk stood up, looked around, and ran off.

When I approached the elk I found that she didn’t die instantly. I had to kneel behind her, puncture the thick ruff of her neck, and slit her throat. It was a bad scene. I backed off and let the knife fall to my side. I stood against a great tree and wondered if I was going to cry. The sunshine she’d been dozing in was still shining, the bloodless sun of winter cold.

*

Although I’d hunted elk a dozen days before I had any success, I could find nothing to feel good about as I proceeded to dress the carcass. The life I ended felt as miraculous to me as any human; every pass of the knife felt murderous. The finality of my deed was almost more than I could bear. I’d broken something more beautiful then I’d ever be able to create. It was also physically difficult; my back was stiff from two weeks of chainsawing work, and as I manipulated the carcass it cramped me over double. And it was cold; my hands were numb and I was on the verge of shivering. I didn’t eat lunch and I didn’t drink enough water. I felt pained and broken a little myself and wanted to disappear. As usual, I didn’t take a picture of the elk, and I refused any picture to be taken of me with the elk. I just worked on finishing what I started

It was a quick drag down a very steep hill to the highway. I walked a mile back along the shoulder to get the car. Only a few vehicles passed me on the highway. I felt light in the cold wind and weak sun of early afternoon. In fact I remember a melancholy beauty to my walk. When I brought the car back, Jen and I loaded the quarters in a matter of minutes into the trunk of our compact car. As we drove back along the lakeshore I imagined the moment as a movie would show it: from above, a little silver Hyundai winds along, ten miles under the speed limit, toward the wooded ocean of the Hebgen Basin. A frozen lake, a frozen sky, and a trunk of meat for the coming winter. I started to forgive myself for what I did.

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