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Elkless Methow residents don't know what they're missing

Elkless Methow residents don't know what they're missing

by Jim Robertson

Each fall, elk, those colossal members of the deer family second only to moose in mass, go into rut ' a fitting term for their mating season, indicative of the bulls' one-track mind at the time.

Their obsessive behavior includes bugling and strutting while showing off to the weary cows, and when challenged by another well-antlered bull, posturing and occasionally sparring. Their showy racks of antlers may look like lethal weapons, but contestants are seldom hurt, and never intentionally. The same two bulls locking horns during the rutting season were likely inseparable pals throughout the previous spring and summer.

The elk rut is a rank-establishing ritual proven, over many millennia, beneficial to the herd. It's a contest with simple rules: the biggest, oldest bulls (usually with the most impressive antlers) have two or three weeks to round-up as many cows as possible for their harem and breed with each of them as they go into estrus, while the younger bulls try to lure a few away and start a party of their own.

Autumn in elk country would not be complete without the stirring sound of anxious bulls bugling-in the season of brightly colored leaves, shorter days and cooler nights. Nothing, save for the clamor of great flocks of Canada geese or sandhill cranes announcing their southward migration, is more symbolic of the time of year.

And just as any pond or river along their flyway devoid of the distinctive din of wandering waterfowl seems exceedingly still and empty, any forest or field bereft of the bugling of bull elk feels sadly deserted and lifeless.

Yet there are many places ' like the Methow Valley ' once familiar with the essential sound of elk in autumn, where today only the blare of gunfire rings in the coming of fall.

During the 19th century, a great wave of settlers was blowing westward with the force of a Category 5 hurricane, leveling nearly everything in its destructive path ' from bison to wolves, from trumpeter swans to prairie dogs. The vast elk herds, too, were cut down in the relentless tempest, leaving only scattered remnants of their population in its wake. Now, following in the ignoble footsteps of those who hunted to extinction two subspecies, the Mirriam's and the Eastern elk, nimrods by the thousands flood the forests and take to the fields in hopes of reliving the gory glory days of the 1800s.

From the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, with his head-hunting safaris here and in Africa, to John Kerry with his backfiring camo-clad, goose-hunt-media- stunt, to Dick Cheney blindly blasting at birds and spraying lead at anything or anyone that moves, politicians have shamelessly courted the hunter vote while helping to promote the "wise-use" propaganda that "hunters are the best environmentalists. " For his part, the great "varmint" hunter, George W. Bush, recently penned (in crayon, no doubt) an executive order encouraging more hunting on national wildlife refuges.

"Sportsmen" have enjoyed so much laudation of late they're beginning to think of themselves as environmental heroes. But most hunters really only live for the day they can register a record-breaking trophy with the Boone & Crocket Club, a group formed by Teddy Roosevelt "to promote manly sport with rifles."

The Fund for Animals founder, Cleveland Amory, took issue with this sporty statesman in his epic, "Man Kind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife." A truly benevolent animal proponent, Mr. Amory writes, "Theodore Roosevelt... could not be faulted for at least some efforts in the field of conservation. But here the praise must end. When it came to killing animals, he was close to psychopathic. " Dangerously close indeed (think: Ted Bundy).

But don't let on to a hunter what you think of his esteemed idol, because, as Mr. Amory put it, "...the least implication anywhere that hunters are not the worthiest souls since the apostles drives them into virtual paroxysms of self-pity." Amory goes on to write, "...the hunter, seeing there would soon be nothing left to kill, seized upon the new-fangled idea of 'conservation' with a vengeance. Soon they had such a stranglehold [think: Ted Nugent] on so much of the movement that the word itself was turned from the idea of protecting and saving the animals to the idea of raising and using them ' for killing. The idea of wildlife 'management' ' for man, of course ' was born."

Not until game managers begin to treat all native species as part of a healthy ecosystem and allow them to recover will Methow residents again know that fundamental song of autumn they've been missing: the bugling of elk in rut.

Jim Robertson, a former resident of the valley, is a nature writer and wildlife photographer. Robertson lives in Cooke City, Mont.

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