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Know the West

'Hunting' for elk in the salt pits of the upper Yellowstone


This October, on a slant-sunny day, I rode with friends just outside Yellowstone Park's southeastern corner, where an old hunting practice called salt baiting still occurs.

For 30 years, commercial big-game outfitters in Wyoming's Teton Wilderness have strewn salt in the meadows of the upper Yellowstone River and along the park boundary. They do it so their clients can ambush trophy elk. Throwing salt down in open meadows draws elk out of the park and into the gunsights of clients, who quickly shoot a trophy and are replaced by another paying client.

After the kill, guides take the head, the backstraps and perhaps other choice cuts. They abandon the rest of the meat - it's too much trouble to pack out.

Abandoning edible meat is illegal in Wyoming, and the Forest Service outlawed "salting elk" on the wilderness in 1990. Yet both still brazenly occur, and the elk keep coming: Salt baiting has created pits that are up to 50 feet across and four feet deep.

My friends and I rode to see the huge pits firsthand and to encourage the Forest Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to enforce the laws they've turned a blind eye to for years. At the end of a day's ride on the Thorofare Trail, we found precisely what we had hoped to find: a salt bait pit a stone's throw from the park boundary.

Someone had recently shot a bull elk there, and we followed drag marks and a blood trail 75 yards through the dirt and grass until we saw the carcass hidden away behind a mass of willows. Ravens had already discovered the scene, and they rasped at us as we approached.

The elk's carcass was so heavy with meat that we could barely roll it over to inspect it. Though the head and cape had been removed, 40-50 pounds of meat had been left to waste. The carcass looked like a plump brown turkey ready for the oven. The neck meat, brisket and rib meat, tenderloins, and sirloins were all abandoned. We took photos and then rode to a state Game and Fish patrol cabin half a mile away to report what we'd found.

The cabin was bolted shut. Wolves cleaned up the evidence that night.

The next day, we photographed and measured three other Thorofare salt bait pits - each heavily used by elk and other game and each marked by the bones of abandoned carcasses. Yellowstone rangers, who have been calling attention to illegal salting for years, have documented at least 17 more pits along the boundary.

Park staffers say they don't have the resources to stop the practice; they're pressed to deal with poaching in the park's interior.

Bridger-Teton National Forest officials have not been quick to respond to the rangers' complaints, saying they don't have the staff to aggressively patrol the backcountry during hunting season.

Oddly, it's only illegal to place salt in the Teton Wilderness, not to hunt over a recently salted pit. Bridger-Teton staffers says that makes it hard to catch people in the act of baiting.

State officials seem to care the least. Salting isn't illegal under Wyoming state law, and the Game and Fish Department argued in the press that salting helps control the bloated Yellowstone elk herd by luring animals out of the park and into the path of hunters. Scavengers usually make it easy for law enforcement officials to avoid looking for violators of the edible meat law. Perhaps ethics and the law don't matter much when compared to the practical concerns of harvesting more elk and supporting outfitters and the local economy.

But baiting an animal on public land so a shooter can ambush it is no less a canned hunt than shooting captive big-game animals for profit behind the fences of private game ranches. Salting for elk may be easier than shooting horses for bear bait, but the ethics are the same. Elk become as addicted to salt as humans become addicted to chocolate.

Like shooting fish in a barrel, hunters can't miss.

Most people who don't hunt rightly condemn baiting. So do thoughtful hunters who have no interest in circling the wagons against the animal rights movement, yet know that life and death aren't as simple as anti-hunters desperately want to believe. Hunters intuitively know that, as the great conservationist and hunter Aldo Leopold wrote, "to have an ecological education is to live in a world of wounds."

Hunting is not simple predation and never has been; it's ecology plus the inescapable moral dilemmas surrounding life and death. Knowing ecology and facing real dilemmas mark the sole difference between hunting and mere killing.

Canned hunting, whether behind fences or over bait, isn't about great moral dilemmas; it's simply about inflicting great wounds for profit.

Robert Hoskins is a conservationist, hunter and writer from Laramie, Wyoming.