Antlers are collected on the National Elk Refuge by staff and a troop of boy scouts in the spring and sold at auction in May to benefit the scouts and the Refuge. Last year, however, one old bull died in a pond on the Refuge, its huge rack protruding from the water, barely out of reach. The urge to recover it overwhelmed me!
We first spotted the rack last season when Chuck and I climbed Miller Butte behind our camp compound with Richard, another volunteer whose job was observing swans on the Refuge from a high rock outcropping. Not visible from the road, the rack was still attached to the submerged skull. Our eyes followed the sun-bleached tines of one antler jutting from the surface of the pond to the ghostly carcass resting on the mud beneath.
“I sure would like to retrieve that from the pond!” I said.
“It’s out of reach,” replied Richard. “They decided to just leave it there.”
This season at the National Elk Refuge one of my jobs is climbing Miller Butte to spy on swans, just as Richard did last summer. As I skirted the base of the butte on my first outing, searching for an elk trail to lead me to the summit, I glanced toward the pond. Still projecting one antler, the elk skeleton lay in the water as we had observed it last year. Peering through my binoculars for a closer look, I considered rescuing it from its watery tomb.
“Would it be all right if I pulled that rack from the pond?” I asked the biologist when I returned from my assignment.
“Ask law enforcement,” he said. I would need to be on the job, in uniform, toting it to a Refuge truck, he added.
No one is allowed on the Refuge without permission. In case anyone reported my activities, law enforcement would have to be advised in advance.
I was unable to locate the Refuge officer by my next trip to Miller Butte. Before ascending the hill, I approached the pond and stepped to the water’s edge. I could have touched the rack with a long oar. The water wasn’t deep this time of the year. Temptation called.
Dropping my backpack, I slipped off one boot. I held it while I struggled with my conscience. I was in uniform. I was on a Refuge mission. I had driven a Refuge truck, left parked along the dirt road. All I needed to do was tiptoe barefooted a short distance into the pond and pluck the prize from its grave. I didn’t want to keep it, but I didn’t want it consumed by decay. My love of skulls and bones taunted me.
But I hadn’t received the permission I required. Slowly, I replaced my boot and turned to fulfill my commitment on top of Miller Butte. Maybe next week………….
Chuck was free from his duties the next week and accompanied me on my observation. By then, I’d talked with the Refuge law enforcement officer. At first he had hedged. “We thought we might leave it there,” he said. But then, “If you can get it, I’ll put it in the garage with the other antlers for next year’s auction.”
Throwing Chuck’s rubber boots in the bed of the pickup, we drove to Miller Butte and parked by the side of the road. Lugging backpacks, scope, binoculars, clipboard, and boots, we headed onto the Refuge. We left the boots by the pond while we hiked the elk trail to the top of the butte to record swan activity. When we descended, we approached the pond.
Retrieving the Rack
After changing his foot gear, Chuck stepped into the water. He tugged on the exposed antler when he reached the carcass, lifting the rack and skull remains free of the pond. Algae coated the parts that had lain in the water, and Chuck held it at a distance to avoid contact with his clothes.
Once on dry land, he laid it on the ground. It certainly wasn’t a trophy rack, but it looked beautiful to us. And perhaps it will bring a few dollars at the antler auction next spring to benefit the Refuge.