It was the stuff of legend.
An elk with enormous antlers appeared on the National Elk Refuge first in 2013 and became the subject of many whispered wapiti conversations.
Elusive and rarely seen, the big bull strolled out of a shallow gully in 2016 when wildlife guide Jody Tibbitts was with clients on a sleigh ride on the refuge. A photographer working with Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, Tibbitts had heard from sleigh driver Lynn Bagley that the beast might be about. Tibbitts captured a 16-second video that went viral.
The mystery continued. Few saw the big boy. Nobody knew where he lived and his appearances on the refuge were fleeting.
Then on Nov. 24 last year, a hunter who had been on the refuge reported finding a carcass. There was no particular reason for the report, refuge spokeswoman Lori Iverson said, other than general interest.
Hunting on the refuge is permitted through a tightly controlled lottery, but regulations, except for a small window for youth hunters, limit killing to antlerless elk.
The refuge’s ranger couldn’t locate the carcass but bumped into the hunter again two days later who took him to the site.
Like many older bulls in the late fall, the dead bull had been ravaged by scabies, an attack by burrowing mites that causes a loss of hair in elk. “Other than the scabies/loss of hair and old age, there weren’t any other noticeable signs indicating cause of death,” Iverson wrote in an email.
Finding the carcass of an old bull on the refuge is nothing remarkable, Iverson said, and the incident raised no red flags. Refuge workers found approximately 50 dead bulls in the past fall and winter, she said.
Impressed by the size of the antlers, the officer collected the head and secured it. He didn’t note whether the animal had a notch in its right ear, the tell-tale sign, along with the antlers, that observers used to confirm its identity.
While wildlife enthusiasts go gaga over individual specimens, refuge personnel view the reserve on a larger scale. They tend to not single out individuals or name them, although employees couldn’t resist photographing the big bull when they saw it.
This spring the refuge shipped the skull and antlers down to Skinner’s Skull Shop and Taxidermy in Thayne, where Ronell Skinner specializes in making European mounts. Employing dermestid beetles that eat flesh, he cleans and whitens skulls for striking displays.
Once again, word spread quickly through social media with many observers convinced that Skinner indeed was curing the bones of the majestic attraction.
“The NER has not decided if we will auction off this set this spring at the annual sale or if we will keep them, at least for a while, and consider another location to display them,” Iverson wrote. The 50th iteration of the auction is scheduled for Saturday, May 19 this year on the Jackson Town Square.