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Spring 2000, Volume 17.3



Eric Batemanphoto of Eric Bateman.

Elk and Barbed Wire 

Eric Bateman teaches English and humanities classes at Great Basin College's Winnemucca Branch Campus. He has published work in Western Technological Landscapes and Community in the American West, volumes 20 and 21, respectively, of the Nevada Humanities Committee's Halcyon series. He escaped from Idaho in 1994.


Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

—Robert Frost

To have no elevated conversation with the land, no sense of reciprocity with it, to rein it in or to disparage conditions not to our liking, shows a certain lack of courage, too strong a preference for human devising.

—Barry Lopez

The father of one of my close friends has a remarkable set of elk antlers hanging in his garage. He's had them for more than twenty years, since he acquired them from a friend of his. This particular set of antlers aren't large, as elk antlers go, perhaps two-and-a-half to three feet long. They are, however, tangled with barbed wire so tightly that they bow inward abnormally. The animal had torn up a fence, and dragged around the trophy for awhile until death found him. Each time I've seen those antlers, I've tried to imagine the breathtaking fight that elk had tearing free of the fence.

I remembered those antlers a couple of years ago when I heard a renowned photographer complain about how the elk on her Montana ranch wreck fences. With much bluster, she told us about the good old days when there weren't as many elk around causing such a nuisance. She also told us of her "fantasy" for dealing with the elk: put out corn to lure them in close, shoot them with an AK-47, and bury them with a bulldozer. She said that if game and fish officers happened to catch her running the bulldozer and wanted to know what she was doing, she would say she was clearing out a spot for a new corral. As if that weren't enough—and as if to erase any remaining ambiguity—she also expressed her sympathy for a frustrated rancher in her country who had shot a dozen or so annoying elk, and her disgust that such a hero would be arrested and prosecuted for simply protecting his livelihood.

Of course it's human nature to complain, particularly at the effrontery of wild beasts. It is also human nature to fear what we can't control. Unfortunately, we Americans in general and Westerners in particular consistently confuse control and comfort. Once we fence off our parcels, we reckon nothing should bother us except our own hard work. So, when the elk inconvenience us, it isn't much of a stretch to reason that slaughtering them and making their burial ground a repository for cow shit would somehow restore our control. There is no honor, apparently, in patching fences. And, apparently, rural living in the late 20th century should be free of inconvenience; progress has triumphed after all.

I say "we" deliberately, because what this photographer suggests is not just the orneriness of one rancher; it embodies how Westerners too often view the world. Our history is full of examples of problems that were "solved" with extermination, and the west is full of people who would as soon kill a coyote, rattlesnake, Mormon cricket, jackrabbit or any other pest (even elk) as look at them. We have learned the wrong lessons from bison and wolves.

And we are not critical of our own arrogance. In fact, what bothers me most about what she said is not the contempt she showed for a marvelous animal, nor the cruelty and narrow-mindedness of her "solution." It bothers me that she managed to dress her fear in the trappings of western hyperbole and get laughs from most of the 150 people in the audience. It bothers me also that an intelligent and sensitive artist would rather kill than build a stronger fence.

Of course, there's no such thing as an elk-proof fence (or anyway, one affordable to the average rancher, or even a rancher with a gallery in Santa Fe). Not that this should matter; we Westerners rarely let physical limitations restrain our desires. But perhaps it would be helpful to consider that there's no such thing as a cattle-proof fence, either.

My wife's family raise cattle in New Mexico, and so even though I grew up a pure greenhorn, I've become by marriage something of a de facto cow hand (between Hobo Wash and La Cienga, anyway). This means I get to ride the slow, wise old horse who knows what to do without my help, and I spend more working time gawking at cacti than paying attention to the cows. But, more to the point, I have admired the fences. My in-laws claim that you can judge the quality of an operation by its fences_a frontier truism, I suppose, but one with some merit. Some of the fences my wife's grandfather made with hand-cut juniper posts fifty years ago still stand, testaments of the hard work and remarkable tenacity of that family. The newer fences, built to replace the old ones as they ultimately wear out, are no small accomplishments, although I find them less interesting because of the bland echo of identical metal posts. Many of them, however, run straight as the proverbial arrow for miles, on quite varied terrain—across sand-choked washes, over stone slopes, through oak thickets. These are serious, complicated construction projects. I couldn't build such a fence.

My in-laws don't worry about elk (there being none in that part of New Mexico), but mending fences is, nevertheless, a constant chore. Summer flooding washes out stretches of fence, but the cattle themselves cause a great deal of damage. Like most caged creatures, cattle instinctively probe for weak spots in the cage and break out when possible. Cows also love to rub on posts, and so will occasionally push a favorite back-scratcher right over, breaking and stretching wire. They will also deliberately break through if they are thirsty and a water source beckons. A cow will also break through a fence if her calf manages to get on the other side (which calves often do). And even when they can't manage to get through a fence, they will make mess of it trying.

Bulls can cause more thorough damage. Natural selection ignores barbed wire, so it is not unusual for two bulls in adjoining ranges to fight for dominance right through the fence. Once, while helping vaccinate some cattle I saw two bulls ruin a fence. We had driven these bulls to the corrals along with about thirty cows, most of which had calves tagging along. After vaccinating the bulls, we turned them out into a larger holding pen, and started running the cows and calves through the chutes. My highly-specialized job was to put a green mark on the hip of each animal with a chunk of greasy chalk to show that they had their shots. Although these particular bulls shared a pasture, and had established dominance, in the confinement of the pen, with nothing else to do, they started scratching the dirt and butting heads, all bluff and pose, as bulls will do. They jousted back and forth tentatively this way, but suddenly the larger of the two reared back and crashed into the other, shoving him some yards across the pen and through the fence. The smaller bull, regaining his feet, fled through the breach while the larger one held his ground. When we inspected the damage we found that they had broken off three posts at the ground and ripped through the wire, leaving a hole wide enough for a truck. The damage was remarkable because this fence was stronger than a regular range fence: the posts were heavier and closer together, and four strands of barbed wire was reinforced with a stout net of woven wire. Nevertheless, it was insufficient to several tons of bovine mauling. One of my wife's brothers spent an afternoon repairing the damage. Such are the troubles with fences, elk or no elk.

When a cow tears up a fence, repairing it is considered routine maintenance; when an elk tears up a fence, it's an act of malignant terrorism. Obviously, this matter can't be adequately explained as a double standard. The fact that elk damage fences becomes synecdochic for elk themselves. We learn to think about elk in such ways. My first memories of elk are of dismembered elk: the severed antlers and mounted heads displayed in hotel lobbies, grocery stores, taverns, antique shops, sporting goods stores, and homes; elk antlers fashioned into furniture, chandeliers, belt buckles, and cribbage boards; elk teeth made into rings, necklaces, and key chains; elk hides tanned and fashioned into moccasins and jackets. Such is the way we consume elk.

Typical artistic representations of elk reinforce such views. For example, two paintings of elk on loan from a local artist hung for a time in the hall outside my office. The paintings demonstrate an expertise of technique, of color and light, that I admire, but both are rather standard treatments of enormously-antlered bulls perched regally in rugged terrain, the kind of paintings that are ubiquitous in tourist traps like Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One commercial advantage of art like this is that it appeals to people who see elk in quite different ways: for visitors to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks who for the first time in their lives see elk, these portraits are like a snapshot of a beautiful animal in a pristine land; for the average big game hunter whose annual ambition is to kill such a monster ("get my elk" is a common expression among such hunters) these portraits preserve the image of the animal as it will hopefully appear in the cross hairs of a rifle scope.

But we so package the elk at our own peril. If we think of elk as nothing more than one-dimensional fragments of themselves, we might as well load the AK-47s and start the bulldozers. We're better off remembering those sudden, accidental encounters on remote roads, when we round a corner and surprise them at a creek, whereupon they bolt into the brush.

Not all encounters are as fleeting. Once while hunting deer near the Idaho-Montana border I passed more than an hour listening to a herd of elk approach through the trees. Two friends and I had hidden along the edge of a long, sloping meadow, waiting for deer to approach a spring. It was a clear morning in October. Fresh snow coated the peaks above us. I had hidden in a shallow gully; one of my friends had hidden farther up the slope behind some fallen, rotten logs; the other had hidden five hundred yards across the meadow in the trees. From where I lay I couldn't see either of them but I knew their positions. As we waited, we heard the elk snapping branches and crashing their way downhill, although their progress wasn't rushed. I peered into the forest, hoping for a glimpse. Then, about a hundred yards down the slope from me, a cow elk and her calf stepped out of the trees. The cow promptly stopped, turned, and looked to each of the three spots on the hill where we thought we were concealed. Without rushing, she led her calf down the meadow away from us. She found a path and followed it. In another mile and she would find our two parked trucks. Soon after that a young bull, his neck and shoulders thickened under the weight of promising antlers, marched out of the trees. He paused, turned his head one, two, three to look at each of us, and then patiently marched across the meadow and into the trees on the other side. For some time after that, we could hear more elk, but we didn't see them. Finally the herd moved out of earshot. Sheepishly, we decided our hiding places weren't as good as we thought, and changed our tactics (to little effect; our hunt was unsuccessful that trip).

Normally elk are secretive, and pass their time in high stands of timber. But people living in elk country are often reminded that elk are closer than expected. I remember when a hard winter in the early 1980s forced hundreds of elk down from their winter ranges in the hills east of Idaho Falls (my home town) where they began to cause havoc in backyards and intersections. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game fed them hay daily, hauling the loads up the hill on snow cats, to keep the herds from coming into town. We could see the herds with unaided eye from our house, several miles from the feeding area. They crowded together on an unpopulated hillside near some dry farms, causing some farmers no small worry for the sake of their winter wheat. Several times we hopped in the car and followed a long line of traffic up the hill to watch the feedings. After a few weeks the weather moderated and the elk returned into the hills, leaving everyone with the fond memories of a media event.

In the west we like to talk about how close we are to the land and how we love it and take care of it. This is the difference, we boast, between us and city folk. The reality, however, is quite distinct: we have, by the way we stubbornly demand that the land do what we ask of it, cut ourselves off from it just as surely as if we had never been here; we too often loathe what we profess to love and tend, with dire consequences: if we can't live with elk, how will we get along with really dangerous creatures, like politicians, lobbyists, environmentalists, Californians, or anyone else with different interests? We must learn to live in the midst of forces that are beyond our control: weather, climate, the whims and instincts of animals, the very crust of the earth. To understand this is the secret of living here.

But our comfort is rooted in the conceit that land is valuable only when put to human use. Late one summer I drove with a friend through Pleasant Valley in north central Nevada. My friend, observing the thick golden clumps of cheat grass covering the valley, asked why no one grazed cattle there. When I explained that cattle do graze there in winter, but during the summer they are in higher ranges, he wanted to know why no one farmed the land. I countered that perhaps there wasn't enough water. With that his frustration came to a head; all that empty, idle land chafed his nerves. "There's nothing else here," he protested. "I can't understand why somebody doesn't do something with this place." I wondered at the time how long it would take him if he were to "do something with this place" until he would complain about a lack of water, or all the coyotes, or insects, or the damn cheat grass.

For most of us, comfort is tied too closely to illusions about the way things should be. Perhaps this famous photographer would feel real joy if elk were as rare in the wild as a wolf. I would predict, though, that if that were the case she would complain about the bastards that killed all the elk and wield her art to that purpose, since that is one of the great stories of the west: to chop off the snake's head and then complain about the blood. For her sake, though, I hope elk tear down her fences until the end of the world.


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