One of the strangest things that happened during the summer of 1999 was the tale of the electric elk. I was working in Resource Management in Grant Village in Yellowstone National Park. One morning, a visitor reported to law enforcement rangers that someone had stolen his 50 foot extension cord sometime overnight. If I remember correctly, the gentleman worked at the Hamilton Store or one of the other vendors in Grant. Most of the people who worked those jobs were of retirement age and they arrive in the spring in their motor homes or trailers, and they are generally from the southeast. They are looking for a nice, cool, interesting place to spend the summer.
That same morning, someone reported to the Visitor Center that he’d seen an elk with an orange extension cord trailing from it’s antlers. The Visitor Center called my boss and the great electric elk hunt was on. Apparently the elk had wandered through the contractor’s trailer court during the night and had gotten the extension cord tangled up in his antlers. The Hamilton Store worker had run the extension cord from his trailer, through the trees to his campfire spot to power lights or something.
It was determined that the National Park Service could not let an elk wander around Yellowstone with a 50 foot, orange extension cord hanging from its antlers until February or March, when the elk would generally drop their antlers. Resource Management was sent to find the elk. First, we went out to track the visitor who had reported the elk and to find out where to start our hunt. We got a starting point, and it didn’t take long to find the animal. It was a fairly memorable sight and one of a kind. Visitors who saw it were happy to point out which way it had gone. Our boss, Dave, radioed us that he had contacted Park Headquarters and they had made the decision to tranquilize the elk and remove the cord. Kerry Gunther, the head of Bear Management would be heading down to Grant as quickly as possible. Kerry was the only ranger who was trained to use tranquilizer darts on elk. The problem was, he couldn’t be on site for about four hours. We had to maintain visual contact with the elk till Gunther arrived.
There were four of us, myself, ranger Rick Swanker and two Student Conservation Association volunteers. We all had radios. The plan was to follow the elk, wherever it went, until it could be tranquilized. Our plan was to stay on the elk, as far as possible away from it but still keeping it in visual contact. Depending on what kind of vegetation we were in, that distance could be quite comfortable or quite uncomfortable. Bull elk are known to charge when approached too closely, but more worrisome was the thought of losing sight of the critter and having the elk disappear into the backcountry and losing track of him. So we split up with each one of us trying to stay on one of the compass points with the elk in the center.
The big bull wandered slowly north towards West Thumb Geyser Basin. It had Yellowstone Lake to the east and the main park road to the west, Grant Village to the south. As it happened, I was on the south, trailing the elk for the next four hours. Generally three of us could see him, sometimes all of us, sometimes only one of us. So we kept our distance and followed, or kept ahead of him and tried not to effect his travels unless it became necessary. I thought he would lie down for a mid-day rest but it didn’t happen. Park elk are more habituated to humans than other elk due to the almost constant presence of visitors wanting to see them. They will tolerate the presence of humans, (at times you will see a hundred visitors in a big circle around a big antlered bull) where non-park elk would be making tracks over the hill. So we followed him and kept in constant radio contact with each other. We went down into creekbeds, through the creek, over fallen logs, and through the baseball field where he grazed for awhile and we got a rest.
Finally Dave called us on the radio and said that Kerry Gunther had arrived. We reported we were on Big Thumb Creek and told Kerry how to find us. He showed up 15 minutes later with a tranquilizer dart gun, which looks like any old shotgun. The elk was in a good spot. He was standing on high ground, looking down into the deep, grassy ravine where the creek ran. It was a clear shot. Kerry was ready and warned us the elk would begin to move when shot with the dart and to be ready. The big bull wandered into the timber and so we all waited. The entourage moved 50 yards with him and then, finally, he went out into the open again. Kerry took his shot and hit the bull in the neck. It took off down into the creekbed. Kerry warned us it may collapse in the creek and could drown. As luck would have it, the elk moved downstream towards Yellowstone Lake, where there is a large slough. Fortunately, the elk collapsed mostly on dry ground, but unfortunately, with it’s head in the slough.
We hustled through the slough, wet up to our thighs, and Rick got to the elk in time to prevent it from drowning. We took turns holding up its massive head and antlers until enough people arrived that we could pull on his front legs and get his head out of the water. It was easy enough to remove the extension cord. While the animal was drugged, Kerry took some measurements, tissue samples, hair samples, blood samples and attached a tag to it’s ear. The tags said to not eat the meat, in the event that later the elk wandered out of the park and was shot by a hunter. The drug used to tranquilize the elk could contaminate the meat for a period of time. We all wondered, would bears, wolves, coyotes, ravens and magpies read this tag? And what would happen should a bear eat this meat? Would we have a tranquillized bear, or a hopped up bear?
I can’t remember whether Kerry administered an antidote, or the drug just wore off on its own. But we sat beside the elk until he began to move, which took an hour or two. We kept a wet towel over his eyes (they were wide open) so they wouldn’t be damaged by the sun, and to keep ravens and magpies from picking at them. As the elk began to move, we moved further away. Eventually, the elk stood up, shook off the towel and walked into the trees.