Elk Skull Surprise

Stumbling upon elk carcasses in the Tetons is not difficult, as hunters harvest the meat of their kills and leave behind bones. Harsh winters take a few lives, as well, leaving carrion for scavengers and bones for rodents to gnaw. Hunters remove skulls with antlers for display, while shed antlers are collected in Spring to sell at the Antler Auction in Jackson.

Consequently, after the antler harvest and the end of hunting season, finding the carcass of a bull elk with antlers or even one shed antler is rare. That’s why we were astounded to come across such a carcass while performing water surveys along Flat Creek on the National Elk Refuge.

Where the Water Ends

As I walked along the creek bank high above its bed searching for the location where water stopped flowing on the surface, Chuck followed as closely as possible on the road in the truck, keeping in contact with two-way radios. Because this can be a time-consuming task, we wanted the truck as close to our final destination as possible. And because the water recedes some distance each week, we are never sure exactly where that destination will be.

Antler Found

One day as I trudged through thick growth, peering down at the creek bed, I glimpsed an antler sprouting from the wild rose bushes at the edge of the bed. “Hey!” I radioed Chuck, “I found an antler!” I scrambled down the bank, brushing aside thorny branches and stumbling over hidden obstacles, to retrieve this treasure that lay next to the rib cage of a carcass.


But as I wrenched the antler from the tangle of undergrowth, an attached skull and a second antler emerged with it, all connected to the neck bones of the carcass. “Wow! We’ve got a whole bull elk here who looks like he died naturally!” I radioed Chuck. “We should take the skull back to headquarters.”

Calling Headquarters

Chuck left the truck and met me at the creek bed. “We need to check with Headquarters and see what they want us to do,” he said, pulling out his cell phone and calling Eric Cole, the Refuge biologist.

“Just leave it there,” Eric said. “We can get it later.” Chuck snapped a picture of the carcass with his phone; and when we returned to headquarters later that day, he showed it to Eric.

“Usually we want to check a carcass to determine cause of death,” Eric said, “but this one is too far deteriorated. It probably died of scabies over the winter.” We could return anytime, he said, to collect it and bring it back. Because we found it on Refuge property, it naturally belonged to the Refuge and it could be sold at the next antler auction to fund irrigation work on the Refuge or, more likely, it could be used for education.

Harvesting Skull

It was a couple days before we found time to return to the carcass. Two other volunteers, Kathy Eichinger and Gaylia Hudgins, accompanied us to help out.

After locating the carcass with the GPS coordinates Chuck had recorded earlier, we set to work to remove the skull from the neck vertebrae. Chuck had brought along pruning loppers, as well as a fishing knife.  From experience with a fresh moose carcass a couple years ago, we knew that this could require a lot of work.

Chuck tried first with the loppers to clip the tendons and ligaments from the bones. When that proved difficult, he next attempted to cut them with the fishing knife. Because the tissues had dried and hardened, both attempts produced no result. Finally, I lifted the skull by the antlers, and Chuck pressed on the vertebrae with his foot, snapping the connection and freeing the skull from the neck bones.

[twocol_one]Chuck with Carcass[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Chuck with Skull[/twocol_one_last]

Living Forever

With help from Kathy and Gaylia, we lugged the skull up the steep bank and toward the truck.  Gaylia and Chuck lifted the prize into the bed of the truck while Kathy and I snapped pictures. We then drove to the maintenance shop and wired it onto a fence to let it cure and to keep it away from interested coyotes and wolves.


Kathy, Chuck, Gaylia
Kathy, Chuck, Gaylia

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Gaylia and Chuck
Gaylia and Chuck


Even though this magnificent animal died a natural death, we are pleased to know that he will live forever to help educate future generations.

Chuck with Elk Skull


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