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Tourist and animal ‘elk jams’ worry Grand Canyon park rangers

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — On a routine patrol, park ranger Stephanie Sutton spots a looming confrontation between tourist and nature — in this case, the driver of a white SUV and a 500-pound elk.

The large female elk lopes along a road shoulder in the woodsy visitors village on the canyon’s South Rim. Within moments, Sutton is in the middle of a peculiar hazard known in Grand Canyon National Park as an elk jam.

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Cars and RVs jam on their brakes, disgorging occupants who rush toward the creature, cameras in hand, marveling at the size and grace of the big female and a smaller companion elk. The animals lower their heads to graze, oblivious to the commotion.

Then the white SUV stops close to the female. As the elk starts toward the vehicle, the driver rolls down his window. Sutton has seen enough.

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“Keep going!” the green-uniformed ranger shouts. “Do not stop!”

The SUV pulls forward, allowing the animal to pass. “If that elk was going to walk up his car,” she says, shaking her head, “that guy was going to try and touch him.”

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Each year, the Grand Canyon attracts 4 million visitors from dozens of nations who flock to the South Rim for unrivaled views of nature’s handiwork. Officials here worry over their close contact — and resulting injuries — with the elk.

Although no one has been killed, officials are stepping up precautions as summer comes to the Grand Canyon, bringing the year’s biggest influx of tourists. The animals are now a daily presence, feeding on the lush lawns outside the historic El Tovar Hotel.

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“We’ve had people injured, and as the near-misses accumulate, you think, ‘Wow, you’re lucky,’” said Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management at the park. “But all it’s going to take is one person gored and thrown over the edge of the canyon. It’s something we take very seriously. We need to decrease this human-elk interaction in a progressive way, and fast.”

The elk are stubborn and unpredictable, especially in the fall rutting season and in the spring, when mothers protect their newborns. Bulls can reach 800 pounds with 5-foot-long antler racks. In scores of run-ins with tourists, they’ve broken people’s bones and caused eye injuries.

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In 2006, a local resident broke his leg in three places when he was knocked over by a bull elk. In 2011, a concessionaire worker was slightly gored in the back by an elk near one of the hotels. A recent animal charge left tourists cowering behind a sign near the canyon’s precipice.

There are no studies on the number of elk, which have become so habituated to people that they roam the streets where many of the park’s 1,500 permanent residents live, grazing a few feet from playground equipment in a schoolyard.

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One bull elk nicknamed “Dennis the Menace” routinely tangled his antlers with items that included outdoor Christmas lights, a child’s swing and a plastic kiddie wading pool.

Still, resident Clarinda Vail says it’s the tourists, not the elk, who need to be culled. She recently saw a man videotaping his son as he played a ring-toss game with the antlers of an elk nibbling on grass near the canyon wall. Park officials have seen tourists hold babies inches from an elk’s face for a photograph, or drag their children by the hand to pet the creatures.

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“It’s no wonder people get hurt,” she said. “They need to know this park isn’t a petting zoo.”

Kim Crumbo had routinely passed three lumbering bull elk on his morning jog. The director of conservation at the Grand Canyon Wildlife Council marveled at their magnificent antler racks but gave them wide berth.

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He knew the peril they presented. One morning in 2006, Crumbo let his attention drift for a moment and then heard a banshee screech.

A bull had charged him from behind, knocking him to the ground and shattering his leg in three places. “I was afraid he was going to trample me,” he recalled. “He looked at me like ‘That was pretty easy’ and then took his sweet time walking away, eating grass, as I was screaming at him.”

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Now 65, Crumbo, who no longer lives in the park, learned his lesson. “You just have to give wild animals space,” he said. “I took my eyes off him. I would certainly never do that again.”

Elk are not natural to the area. Like tourists, they’re an invasive species.

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Rocky Mountain elk were brought to Arizona by train from Yellowstone National Park to establish new populations after the state’s native elk became extinct around 1900. Over the decades, they were driven north by hunting and development, attracted by artificial water sources near the park, such as a wastewater treatment plant.

“They’re incredibly comfortable here,” said wildlife program manager Greg Holm. “We want them to become less comfortable. And that’s a hard thing to do.”

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Officials plan to replace most lawn grass with natural vegetation and limit runoff from the water treatment facility. They keep school gates closed to keep the animals away from the lawns, but the elk dig at the base of the fence or ram it with their antlers.

“You see them staring at the grass in the schoolyard like it’s the promised land,” Sutton said.

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This fall, the park will introduce a roaming volunteer Bugle Corps, named after the bull elk’s mating call, to encourage tourists to keep their distance. “We want to change behavior,” Sutton says, “not just the elks’, but the tourists’ as well.”

On this morning, Sutton already has some educating to do. A Russian tourist instructs his son to back up closer to the grazing elk for a photo. That’s when Sutton issues a gentle scolding.

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“How would you like it if someone approached your boys like that?” she asks.

The tourist offers a sheepish grin. “Really, they’re not looking very dangerous,” he says. “But I guess it’s better to keep away. They’re not a cow.”

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Nearby, the morning elk jam is in full force as Sutton tries to shoo away persistent tourists. “You deserve a medal,” one man tells Sutton, applauding her traffic control work. Moments later, he creeps in for a better photo.

A car stops in the middle of the road. “Is that a moose?” a woman shouts.

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Then the white SUV that Sutton warned to move along returns. The driver veers close to the elk as a woman hangs out the passenger window, clicking photos.

“Those people just don’t want to let it go,” Sutton sighs.

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Clapping her hands, Sutton startles the elk, which moves off into the woods.

Elk jam over, Sutton dusts off her ranger’s cap. The cars move on. The park is quiet again.

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john.glionna@latimes.com


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