I don’t usually lament the death of a wild animal, largely because they are wild animals. Individual elk die every single day, all across the West.
But Old No. 10 was different. I, and many others, got used to seeing him roaming the hills and draws of Yellowstone National Park. He was an institution, and when he died sometime in the early hours of April 20, an international favorite passed into time.
Named for the tag number in his ear, as bull elk go, No. 10 was big…big of stature and big of repute. He was also old–at least 16, probably older. That’s ancient for a wild bull elk.
The reason his age was known, approximately anyway, is that in 2001 he got tangled up in some playground netting at the school in Mammoth Hot Springs. To extricate him, park officials had to sedate him, remove his antlers, and ear tag him. Naturally, they also gave him the once-over physically, and determined he was at least three years old at the time, probably closer to five.
Certainly, living in national park aided him in his longevity, but of equal import was his tenacity. He was bigger and stronger than most of the competition, but he did have frequent protracted, violent battles with another famous elk, Number 6. Together, those two bulls ruled the park, from the Blacktail Plateau to Mammoth.
Old Number 10 was able to gather and maintain large harems of cows on the crowded streets of Mammoth, and in the surrounding hills, for the better part of the last decade. When No 6 died several years ago, No. 10 took to chasing people and vehicles.
He also became a celebrity elk when the BBC filmed a documentary in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks called Showdown in Elk Town. The TV show highlighted the potential hazards of living in close proximity to elk, especially during the autumn mating season–the rut.
Only recently did No 10. start to show his age. He lost some body mass, and his impressive headgear, while still massive, started to lose some size as well. But last September, he was out there again, wandering the hillsides near Mammoth, bugling his heart out. Tenaciously looking for love to the end.
Over the last couple winters, visitors familiar with Old No. 10 began to fret for his health. Something of a death watch happened this past February when he looked especially gaunt and listless.
People swore he wouldn’t last until the spring green-up. Turns out they were right, but it wasn’t his failing health that doomed him. Strike that, yes it was. Wolves finally got him.
But reports of his demise were confused and in flux for most of the last week. The first report I heard, on April 20, ultimately turned out to be the accurate one. In the meantime, several people claimed he was hit by a vehicle.Some said it was one of the heavy trucks currently zooming around the north end of the park, where road repair is underway.
But, some forensic work, a’ la CSI: Yellowstone, determined that his injuries, and the cause of death, was wolf pack.
The Canyon wolf pack, minus the two alpha wolves, which were back at the den sight in the Hayden Valley, caught up with Old Number 10 near the Wraith Falls pull-out.
After the brutal Yellowstone winter, No. 10 just didn’t have it in him to fend off the pack.
I’ll miss watching him chase vehicles on the streets of Mammoth, and I’ll miss seeing him lounging in the snow around Wraith Falls deep into January.
But hey, wolves gotta eat too.