The 50-mile stretch of US Highway 385 between Fort Stockton and Marathon, Texas, has always been one of my favorite drives. If you encounter five other vehicles during the trip, it's a heavy traffic day. It's a perfect showcase for the desolate grandeur of the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas, winding through some of the largest ranches in the country and significant geologic phenomena, and never failing to present the traveler with a wide array of wildlife.
On various trips, we've encountered mule deer, antelope, javelinas, coyotes, snakes almost as long as my truck is wide, and more rabbits (jack and cottontails) than we could count. But on a recent trip, we encountered something that none of us had ever seen before.
Earlier this month we drove from Fort Stockton to eat at the 12 Gauge Restaurant, adjacent to the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon. Our group consisted of MLB, my brother and his wife, and my mother. After the usual excellent meal, we hit the road about a half hour before dusk. About twenty miles into the drive (see map below), we came around a curve and I spotted something out of the ordinary a few hundred yards down the road.
"Quick...grab your cameras and get ready!" MLB and my sister-in-law immediately armed their iPhone and iPad, respectively, and focused on what I saw: a bull elk standing in the highway right-of-way, just off to our right.
The initial sighting
The typical absence of traffic on this highway worked to our advantage, as I was able to stop on the shoulder to photograph the elk, as well as back up and pull forward to stay alongside him.
"Are you looking at me? Are YOU looking at Me? Well, are you?"
The animal wasn't particularly exercised by our attention, although he ambled back and forth in a mildly annoyed fashion as the paparazzi recorded his movements (see the short video below). After a minute or two, he calmly stepped over the fence and wandered into the brush, and we left feeling like we had been privileged to witness something magical.
The presence of elk in West Texas is a somewhat controversial topic. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) classifies elk as an exotic species, meaning that they believe it's a non-native species. However, not everyone agrees with this designation. Some researchers believe that elk have inhabited West Texas for centuries, and their evidence and arguments are compelling.
It's not a purely academic dispute. By classifying elk as non-native exotics, TPWD allows them to be hunted year around, with no limits on the number of animals that can be killed. In fact, because the agency believes elk compete with native (and endangered) desert bighorn sheep for food, it recommends that ranchers hunt the elk to the point of elimination.
I'm not a hunter, but I understand and agree with the benefits of controlled hunting for certain species. I just find it hard to believe that the relatively small elk population poses any serious threat to the food supply for another scarce species, especially given the vast landscape in which both reside. The cynic in me can't help wondering about the influence on the TPWD of the hunting outfitters and ranches who benefit financially from year-round elk hunts.
Regardless - or perhaps especially - in light of this situation, it was a memorable encounter on that lonely Texas highway, and we came away with a new appreciation of the natural wonders of the Trans-Pecos region.