One glorious morning last April

This morning around 7 a.m. before firing up my espresso machine I stopped at the window in our living room. It’s my daily ritual while blundering my way to the kitchen to look east down over The Elk Refuge (just north of Jackson, Wyoming)—and the meanders of aptly named Flat Creek—to see what’s moving. That might be geese in flight comically dropping their flaps for an awkward landing near their nests on the cliffs above our house, ravens soaring in pairs, mule deer grazing our wild grasses, or even a merlin that visits us in spring and hunts at our bird feeders, giving the name a whole new meaning. This morning there was indeed movement, a veritable elk river of movement.

As I looked down on the twenty-five thousand acre meadow preserve, I saw a stream of elk bathed in morning sunlight heading north in single file. The line paused briefly while individuals waited at one point to cross Flat Creek but no single animal ever became impatient and jumped ahead. The animals were strung out for well over a mile. It was the spring migration and it was a magnificent sight.

I remembered hearing somewhere that the annual journey to higher ground, which I was witnessing in real time, was all precipitated by a signal from a single cow. I couldn’t recall where I had learned that fact, perhaps when I served as Executive Director of the Teton Science School here in Jackson in the mid-80s.

My brief Google search to confirm my memory of this amazing information came up empty (more research to come on that subject) but I did learn the journey can range from 30 to 90 miles covering extreme terrain and what takes the bulls a few days can take much longer for cows who often give birth along the way while fending off a variety of predators.

So, whereas I did not find proof of an uber cow whose lone signal launches
a massive movement of thousands of animals, I did find reason to admire the grit of the rank and file of elk cows doing the heavy lifting and calf wrangling while migrating.

In my eco-thriller, The Straw That Broke I have a scene involving a suspicious climbing accident on the Elk Refuge, however that occurred in a season when the elk herd was busy making a living in the mountains. The flowing sea of elk I witnessed was so striking it will perhaps inspire an early spring scene set on the refuge in a future environmental mystery.

Update: Mathew Kaufman, author of Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates claims the theory of a signal from a single cow is a “stereotype.” Interesting word choice leaving tons of room for a fiction writer to drive his imagination through. I’m sticking with the stereotype.

I would like to take the opportunity to introduce the Free Range Writers.

Gregory Zeigler, Pamela Beason, and Dave Butler

“As authors of what we call ‘environmental mysteries,’ Pam, Greg and I formed Free Range Writers after meeting at a writers conference a few years ago. It’s a unique collaboration where we share thoughts on writing, promote each other’s work, and encourage other writers to use fiction to tell important stories about land use and the environment. We’re all very active in the outdoors, and have used that passion as background for our award-winning novels.

Reprinted by permission from

Photography by: Chuck Schneebeck, Ficht Muller, and Kirk Geisler

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