Thinking Like An Elk

Photo by Amanda Morrison

Once I made the mistake of saying out loud to someone, “So what do you think an elk thinks about?”  The response was something along the lines of “What are you talking about?  Elk don’t think!” 

Perhaps it is time to think differently about this.

A handful of years ago I worked in Yellowstone National Park tracking radio-collared elk and wolves as part of a research study investigating the impact wolves have on elk feeding behavior.  I spent 2 full winters following elk tracks in the snow and spent a whopping 2400 hours within a very close proximity to elk.  I have to admit, the days were sometimes very dull, cold, and lonely.  However, the experience taught me something very valuable about life no matter what species you belong to.

Every morning I set out on showshoes with the goal of locating an elk herd to spend the rest of the day observing.  At first it took me hours to locate hours-old tracks and then get to the elk on foot using my radio telemetry equipment and maps.  I never knew where to start looking and felt that I was randomly and blindly searching, often without success.  This was maddening to say the least and on top of it I was wasting days unable to do my job.

About 40 days into the first winter, I decided to change my tactic and go with a less conventional way of locating wildlife.  I decided to think like an elk.  You might ask, just exactly how does one go about doing this? I brainstormed a list of questions and scenarios to help me. 

Photo by Amanda Morrison

“If I were an elk who needed to get to food quickly, where would I go?” 

”A pack of wolves is lingering nearby.  How do I not get eaten?”

“If I were an elk trying dealing with deep snow winters, what choices do I have for food and where do I find that food?”

I began to think in terms of basic elk survival, putting myself in the position of the elk and seeing it from an elk’s point of view.  Trust me, this was much easier for me to do for the elk than it was to do for many humans I knew!  Humans tend to be much more complicated and their point of view can change with situations and over time.  An elk is a much simpler animal with very little going on in its life, and what is going on is pretty repetitive and predictable.

Aside from thinking about food and water sources, and strategizing how not to be eaten, an elk also thinks about sex.  The latter is not a constant but is something that becomes an intense focus for a few weeks every fall.  Once the hormones have relaxed, the elk returns to a normal eat, drink, sleep, and escape from predators lifestyle.  

As I began to think like the elk, I also began to act like the elk.  I began to think about the choices I had when it came to food and I started eating healthier.  I began to think about what I was drinking and changed that.  I began to think about how much sleep I was getting and that changed too.  I began to be much less tolerant of people who were crowding me, pushing me, pressuring me and I began to defend myself or simply remove myself from them.  I became more like the elk by living a simple life.  Thinking like an elk greatly increased my ability to find elk each day, and it also changed my perspective on life and what is most important for my own survival.

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