The Elk Refuge of Jackson, Wyoming
Jackson Hole isn't exactly what it sounds like—it's a high-altitude valley, accessible following a steep descent from the Teton or Gros Ventre mountains. The fur traders that named it in the 19th century considered Jackson Hole an appealing spot, and today it's the one of North America's top ski destinations. But for far longer than either one of those groups have been around, it's been a popular retreat for Rocky Mountain elk.
Not as iconic of the American West as the bison, these elk—a subspecies of the North American elk, or Cervus elaphus—are nevertheless an essential part of the region's natural and human landscape. (Four antler arches in the main square of Jackson serve as a much-loved town monument.) As with a considerable number of the people here, their movements are seasonal; the elk range throughout the hills for about half the year, until the snow and cold force them to lower altitudes for better forage.
The ultimate destination for about half of them, give or take, is the National Elk Refuge, a 25,000-acre spread of wetlands, sagebrush, and stands of aspens and evergreens. The refuge is no recent thing. Established in 1912, it's older than the town of Jackson itself.
The winter herd at the refuge contains between 5,000 and 8,000 animals, depending on the weather conditions, and is said to be the largest gathering of elk on earth. During these hunkered-down months young males spar, mothers tend to their young, and the group generally conserves energy for spring. Some of them die, a boon to the opportunistic eagles and coyotes that follow them into the refuge.
The males also shed their majestic racks of antlers—of all the North American species, the Rocky Mountain elk have the largest. These prized castoffs are collected and sold at public auction in May, and later used for jewelry, lamps, wall hangings, furniture, and even dog chews. Everybody, even Fido, gets a piece.