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  • “The Most Interesting Objects That Have Ever Arrived”: Imperialist Nostalgia, State Politics, Hybrid Nature, and the Fall and Rise of Arizona’s Elk, 1866–1914
  • Michael A. Amundson (bio)

On January 24, 2018, Arizona Game and Fish managers captured five dozen elk from northern Arizona and transported them to West Virginia, where the native Eastern elk had been exterminated more than a century earlier. According to the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, the operation cost about $40,000 to construct the pen that held them and another $40,000 to pay for the crew that captured and transported the elk back east. West Virginia partnered with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to shoulder all costs. It was a remarkable historical operation on several fronts, most notably because the ancestors of these elk were not native to Arizona but were Rocky Mountain elk that had been imported, or translocated, from Yellowstone National Park 105 years earlier after Arizonans had exterminated the native Merriam’s elk from their state. Similar to West Virginia, the state of Arizona had partnered with a non-governmental organization―lodges of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks―to cover nearly all costs to capture the elk and bring them by train to the Grand Canyon State. In fact, all 35,000 elk now in Arizona are descendants from a dozen such [End Page 255] translocations between 1913 and 1968. As some of these animals move yet again, it makes sense to pause and reconsider the history and significance of the “monarch of the forest” in Arizona’s cultural, political, and environmental histories. 1

First, the elk translocation is a story of imperialist nostalgia, a cultural history term that describes a longing for something in which one had a hand in destroying. As will be seen, whites killed off Arizona’s native Merriam’s elk within a half century of settlement. Then, after experiencing more than a decade without elk, Arizonans worked to bring them back just a year after statehood. 2

Second, the story is also a political one of emerging state politics, the divide between urban and rural, and a case study of the tension between progressive reformers and locals who distrusted increasing federal power and worried that conserved lands would be closed to public use—all ideas endemic to modern Arizona. Although there was widespread support to bring Yellowstone elk to northern Arizona, a simultaneous effort to set aside a preserve for the animals by mostly urban sportsmen failed due to pressure from local rural cattlemen whose animals would compete for forage. Further, the ranchers feared that Washington was going to remove this preserve from public use—just as it had done with national monuments and the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. 3

Third, because these new elk were a different subspecies—Rocky Mountain rather than Merriam’s—they represent a variation on the theme of hybrid nature. This environmental history concept suggests a place that is no longer truly “natural” but instead a combination of nature and artifice that looks authentic but is in fact composed of exotics intermingled with natives. It is the same concept that helps us to understand how Roosevelt Dam was modifying the Salt River to turn water from riverbeds into canals and [End Page 256] fields, reclaiming the desert. This creation of “second nature” has been an important part of Arizona’s history, whether it is air conditioning in the desert, making snow on mountain ski slopes, or drinking Colorado River water that has flowed uphill from a river more than a hundred miles away. And like these examples of hybrid nature, the non-native elk have become so adapted to the state and so embedded into our lives and culture that most residents and visitors assume that these elk are native and have always been here. 4

Lastly, the Arizona elk story also fits into a new historical genre of animal history. This growing field “directs us to document the lives of historical animals as intrinsically valuable history through which we can better understand nonhumans and ourselves.” To do this, historians examine such things as how animals changed over time and space and how we can find...