Online Event – Saving the American Elk with Camera

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Saving the American Elk with Camera

with Dr Vanessa Bateman, Maastricht University

15 May 2024, 2pm EDT, Online

Animal History Group Seminar Series

In the 1890s hunting guide and rancher Stephen N. Leek of Jackson Hole, Wyoming was gifted a camera by his client George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak Company) and began to practice wildlife photography as a hobby. Simultaneously, Euro-American settlement in the region was causing what became known as the “elk problem,” an annual famine in which thousands of elk (wapiti) were dying of starvation in the winter. Newly erected fencing and agriculture disrupted their historic migration routes and food sources, while the eradication of predators had increased elk populations beyond range capacity. With his camera, Leek began documenting the demise of elk and community efforts to feed them—images that were widely circulated in publications and traveling slide lectures as a way to both advocate for their protection and promote his work and the region to sporting tourists. Due in part to Leek’s advocacy, the National Elk Refuge was established in 1912, annually home to one of the largest elk herds in the world each winter, where they have been supplementally fed for over a century. While Leek’s legacy as the “father of the elk” has been (regionally) celebrated, my research also reveals his direct involvement in the Bannock Uprising of 1895, a violent attack against Indigenous hunting rights. I argue that Leek’s animal photographs represent power and control over hunting rights from a settler-colonial viewpoint and that early forms of wildlife management served not only to advocate for the well-being of animals but also to gain control of animals for economic and political purposes. Moving beyond Leek’s story, this talk will discuss how the visual culture of elk and their material traces—in the form of photography, film, and naturally shed antlers—continued to play an important role in their management and local tourism throughout the twentieth century.

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Animal History Group

The Animal History Group is an international network for postgraduates, academics, archive and museum workers and other professionals whose work engages with animals in history.

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