Right about now, Josh Burnim, a 27-year-old environmental activist with an Abraham Lincoln beard and a backpack stuffed with oatmeal and dried hummus, is bushwhacking his way toward Porcupine Lake in southern British Columbia. On May 7, Burnim set out on an 800-mile backcountry odyssey from Idaho's Sawtooths to Canada's Selkirks, following big-game trails like a migratory animal to demonstrate a need to connect the fragmented northern Rocky Mountain wilderness, islands of habitat isolated by highways, fences, clearcuts and human settlements.
A few weeks ago, when Burnim came out of the woods and called me from a pay phone near Sandpoint, he sounded like he'd been away from civilization for perhaps too long.
"I've been walking with the eyes of a caribou, an elusive creature roaming great distances in search of habitat," he said. "As I was coming out of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, I rounded a bend in the Lochsa River, and out of nowhere there was this huge developed campground. I looked at all the concrete and I thought, 'What's this?' It seemed so foreign, I was actually afraid. I suppose an animal might have had that same response."
After talking to Burnim, it was easier to imagine what it must've been like for the Roosevelt elk that wandered to the southeastern edge of our own isolated island of wilderness, Forest Park. Just after noon on July 11, a Wednesday, a 10-point bull charged out of Hoyt Arboretum, down Southwest Knight Boulevard, across the packed Oregon Zoo parking lot. It paused at the entrance gate, where more than a hundred people were waiting in line at the ticket booths.
The spooked animal brandished its antlers at the equally terrified zoo patrons, bolted through an open exit, then leaped over the perimeter fence of the Cascade Crest exhibit, the only place that would make any sense at all to an elk. Rifle-toting zookeepers dispatched the agitated ungulate with four tranquilizer darts and drove it to the elk barn, where it died 30 minutes later. A necropsy revealed that the bull, which most likely had come from a small herd that roams between Northwest Germantown Road and Cornelius Pass, probably wouldn't have survived anywhere, since infection had already set in from an off-season gunshot wound to the stomach.
"This sort of thing might become the norm," says Oregon Zoo director Tony Vecchio. "The urban growth boundary is a great idea, but you can't get away from the fact that packing more and more people inside leaves less and less room for animals. We've done a good job of creating preserves like Forest Park, but we've done practically nothing to connect them all together. Without those corridors, it's just a matter of time before we lose everything that's wild."
Years ago, there was talk about building a trail from Forest Park to the Coast Range. Today, nobody seems to know if that's even feasible. So once Josh Burnim marches victoriously out of the Selkirks next month, I think I'll ask him to help me blaze a route from the Oregon Zoo to the Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area east of Seaside, the state's official refuge for Roosevelt elk.
For more on Josh Burnim's "Sawtooths to Selkirks" hike, check out www.wildrockies.org/idahohike .
To get to Jewel Meadows Wildlife Area, take the Sunset Highway west to Jewell Junction (just past the Elderberry Inn). Then follow the unmarked Fishhawk Falls Highway north for nine miles, through Jewell, and turn left onto Highway 202. The refuge is off the highway, 1.5 miles west of town. On hot days, the best times for spotting elk are before 8 am and after 5 pm. Very soon, as the weather cools, the entire herd of 200 will be out day and night, with the bulls bugling, calling for their mates.