How 47 elk turned me into an environmentalist

The elk recovery story is an excellent example of how we can help species today

Mitchell Ukropina

From the age of 7 until I turned 16, I went on annual backpacking trips with my dad in the wilderness areas surrounding Crested Butte, Colo. My very first trip ended at Maroon Lake. If you haven’t seen it, the Maroon Bells are so breathtaking, they look unreal. At the age of 7, it was the first time I didn’t fully believe my eyes. 

For our fifth hike, my Dad and I decided to challenge ourselves. We upped our elevation gain and mileage significantly. Our first day was entirely uphill, about seven miles, ending in a gorgeous basin below Storm Pass. Nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, we camped there for the night before waking up at sunrise to summit the pass. As the sun peeked above the horizon, we could see the outline of six large animals, which we assumed were deer, on the ridgeline above us. Even though they were a mile away, they were staring squarely in our direction, watching us struggle up the skree that they had effortlessly bounded up an hour before. As we got closer, we realized these majestic creatures were far larger than deer. Neither of us had ever seen elk, and just seeing those six, with the sun rising behind them, was awe-inspiring. They stood there for the majority of our climb, almost beckoning us on. Eventually, they disappeared over the other side.

We summited the pass in order to catch a view of the Castles, a rock formation that resembles a medieval fortress. From the top of Storm Pass the Castles sit right at the same elevation about two miles away. The view was amazing and became even more breathtaking when we looked into the snow fields directly below. In that open space, across the basin, were 47 elk. My Dad was able to count them individually as they crossed different icy patches because their dark brown fur stood in stark contrast to the white background. We sat there for an hour, watching them mosey down into the valley. We eventually lost sight of them in the aspen groves.

An experience like this would not have been possible without the success story that is elk conservation. Elk used to range across the entire United States. Before any Europeans arrived, it was possible to see one of these 700 pound beasts on the land that would become New York City. As westward expansion began, market hunting and habitat destruction for farming increased exponentially.  As a result, by 1907, elk numbers had dwindled to just around 40,000. Early conservationists, like Teddy Roosevelt, realized elk and other large North American mammals were on a path toward extinction.  Focusing mainly on the western United States, Roosevelt established 150 national forests during his presidency in order to protect the habitats of these animals.. Elk populations were protected through legislation. Taxes on ammunition and fees for hunting licenses were set up to fund these safeguards. Hunter conservation has continued to the present day with hunting organizations on the forefront of responsible hunting practices and reintroduction. Through this work, there are currently more than one million elk in North America. Not only that, but populations are also being reintroduced into their historical range in such states as Nebraska, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and North Carolina.

Growing up around vast landscapes like the Rockies meant that I had taken nature’s beauty for granted. But, this experience, high on a mountain peak, instilled an active interest in nature. Whenever I could, I would choose elk as my topic for school projects. Learning about the history that led to me seeing those elk was a major contributor to my interest in environmental policy. The rebound of the elk population, especially in Colorado, is heartening for modern day environmentalists and conservationists. The elk’s success story and those hunters who helped protect them, also give me hope that with a little effort we can do the same for so many other animals that may be endangered but deserve to roam free and healthy in our wild spaces.


Mitchell Ukropina

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