I arrived in Jackson on a rainy Friday in May to enjoy a "sneak peek" of the exhibition before it opened. May is a drag in Jackson for my friends who work seasonal jobs there as guides and ski lift operators—there's no snow left to ski, and it's still too cold to run the river. Most are broke, aside from the lucky few who find landscaping gigs clearing winter debris from the grounds of estates owned by titans of finance, movie stars, and other members of the One Percent. Jackson is a tax haven—people who own multiple homes like to keep one here, even though they only dwell here for a week or two each year, to avoid state income tax, estate tax, capital gains tax, and other pesky threats to their wealth. The lesser rich sometimes rent their luxury digs to tourists, who stream into the town in steady supply—enamored by the grand scenery and plentiful wildlife, eager to dine on seared elk medallions—and provide Jackson the majority of its economy.
It's impossible to stand anywhere in downtown Jackson and be more than a few hundred yards from an elk statue, a mounted elk head, or other elk-related décor.
The problem with the elk refuge is that it's basically a feedlot, with all the disgusting trappings that repel people from eating beef (or, at least, from thinking about where beef comes from). Foremost, it's an incubator for disease—all those animals packed in close, eating and sleeping for months on each other's piss and shit, the snow piled high behind them in the mountains covering any feed, and the quaint complex of Jackson's log mansions, hobby ranches, and overpriced kitsch stores blocking their path south. They succumb mostly to brucellosis, a cattle disease brought west by early herds that cause wildlife to stillbirth their young. More than 30 percent of elk on the refuge are infected. Since brucellosis is transmitted through bodily fluids like saliva and urine, humans rarely catch it—except, perhaps, in cases like one a Yellowstone park ranger told me about, when she walked up on a woman trying to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a stillborn elk calf.
Chronic Wasting Disease isn't in the refuge yet, but it's been slowly marching that way for decades. Biologists argue it's only a matter of time before it reaches Jackson Hole.