Friday, February 13, 2009

Leave Only Tracks, Take Only Pictures

A month or two ago, I was sitting in a doctor’s office in Provo waiting to see a dermatologist. The office was spruced up with all kinds of Native American decor. Rugs, blankets, paintings and the like. If you live in the Western U.S., I’m sure you can imagine the waiting room. Also on the wall was a bison skull. There was a family sitting opposite me and the gentleman commented to his father (or father-in-law) that he’d spent a lot of time wandering Yellowstone looking for a bison skull. He wanted one for his wall, too. But he’d had no luck and was still looking. I could have told him why he hadn’t found one but I kept my mouth shut.

When I worked for Resource Management in Yellowstone part of our responsibilities were to protect the natural resources. Besides the trees, geysers and animals, one overlooked portion of the natural resource were artifacts like arrowheads, rock specimens, animal bones, antlers and yes, bison skulls. These items tend to disappear with remarkable regularity. I’ve heard that Petrified National Park near Holbrook, Arizona no longer has any small to medium size petrified wood. Even some large specimens have managed to get in a truck and leave. Saguaro National Park has had some of their saguaros disappear. Indian artifacts walk off from Mesa Verde and other protected lands in the west.

It is illegal to remove any natural object from the National Parks but it is very difficult to enforce. When we lived in Montana we would regularly hear of "horn hunters" getting caught in Yellowstone with elk antlers in their possession. Their goal was to take the antlers to the antler sale in Jackson, Wyoming and offer them up for auction. Buyers wold come from all over the planet to purchase the antlers. Some would use them as decoration for their brand new rustic western castles, and some would buy them for the Asian market. Some Asian gentlemen believe that ground up elk antler (and bear gall bladders, but that’s another story) added to their tea would add to their potency. Viagra, to some extent has put an end to this market.

So, how would we try to protect the bison skull and elk antlers in Yellowstone? When we would see someone throwing an elk antler in the car, we would take note of their licence plate and call law enforcement. If we would find elk antlers in the backcountry we would try to make it less conspicuous by depositing it far from the trail, or throwing into some inaccessible place. High technology has entered the fray. Antlers and skulls have been fitted with GPS locators and rangers know when they begin moving around.

Why is it illegal to remove objects? It’s apparent why you shouldn’t remove rocks, trees and petrified wood. That’s why people come to the parks: to see those things. Why are antlers, skulls and bones illegal to remove?. They are part of the natural ecosystem and add to the visitor’s experience. But more importantly, they are a food source to those on the bottom of the food chain. Rodents gnaw on antlers for a source of calcium and other nutrients. Their remains enrich the soil. So in an effort to keep skulls, especially bison skulls in the park, we had to destroy them.

We’d find a bison skull near a trail and we’d smash it on a rock or bust it up with a pulaski. If we left it intact, it would disappear and be out of the park by the next day. People are absolutely shocked to learn we smashed bison skulls and many times I’ve explained our rationale. Skulls don’t add much to the visitor’s experience if they are on someone’s wall, and they don’t do much when busted up into many pieces. But at least they don’t walk off. They return to the soil, to the "resource".

By the way, on my way into the doctor’s examining room, I examined the bison skull. It was a resin or plastic reproduction.


Anonymous said...

Seeing the bison skull photograph sends me right into "Georgia O'Keefe Land"! It's probably her fault that people want bison skulls! HA!

As always, you have introduced to new facts of naturalism of which I was unaware. Thanks again.

I hope all is well with y'all.

Linda said...

I didn't know rangers smashed skulls! I always wondered why it was so rare to see antlers. Although I have seen them a few times in the Park, I've seen them much more often outside it.

I have to tell you a story about a friend of mine who was a naturalist for a guest ranch right outside the park. She took a group of guests hiking in the Northwest part of the park to a ridge where there are a number of standing petrified trees. She warned the guests that taking specimens was absolutely not allowed. When they got back to the ranch, a couple who had been on the trip came up to her and the husband (forced by his wife to confess) admitted that when he had wandered away from the group to relieve himself, he had sneaked around to where there were some petrified trees and scooped up a bunch of petrified wood pieces and hid them in his pack. He gave them back to my friend and apologized for his greediness. His day pack was full of about 25 pounds of rock! He had lugged them all the way back from the ridge to the bus on his back. My friend took the rocks back to the park the next day, hiked back to the ridge and scattered them around one of the trees. No wonder the one petrified tree that has signs pointing to it from the road is fenced off. Acquisitiveness is probably hard wired into us.