The Elk State

She asked if I wanted to hike into the Grand Canyon next fall, a quick trip to the bottom and back.

You mean what the Park Service specifically says not to do?

I’m not sure if I’m fit or crazy enough to go down and up in a day. I did drive to the rim once. The question brought back memories of my trip through Arizona in 2012.

The semi ahead of me got pulled over for speeding approaching a deserted work zone along I-40. With or without workers, state policy reduces the speed limit near single lane sections enough to make sure people are speeding. Nothing specific to Arizona here. Most states do the same thing.

Most of Arizona’s speed limit signs could be improved with one simple change: add the word “night”. There’s no need for a speed limit in the daytime on these rural highways, but in the dark you can’t see far enough to go 90.

Northern Arizona is elk country. They mostly come out at night… mostly. The state says about one elk gets hit per week near Flagstaff. I saw no elk, but I have no reason to doubt that figure.

The highway was lined with elk crossing signs with random distances below them. The “next XX miles” count would go up and down. These were warning signs overused to the point they became meaningless. You can’t ask people to keep a heightened level of alertness for hundreds of miles with no visible reason. Like I said, I saw no elk.

I did see a vulture. A big one. That black bird over the canyon rim turned out to be North America’s largest bird, the California Condor. Number 455, if you’re keeping score. Most of them wear armbands to help biologists keep track of individuals, because each individual is important.

Condors are an extraordinarily rare environmental success story. Thirty years ago they were extinct in the wild, one step above dead as a dodo. Like the Passenger Pigeon in 1900, except biologists figured out how to get them to breed in captivity.

Most endangered species designations result in orders from Washington telling others to spend money generating paperwork. They allow environmentalists to throw sand in the gears of development. They keep consultants employed. They rarely make species better off. The government hardly seems to care what happens; periodic assessments required by law are seen as too much work.

The California Condor was different. An iconic species, perhaps, like wolves? A lot of people spent time and money trying to save them. They weren’t saying “don’t do that!” They were saying “let me help.” Millions per year went to captive breeding and field work.

That constructive, rather than destructive, effort seems to be working.

If I do try to hike the Grand Canyon, my body will help feed America’s rarest bird.

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