In a place where he used to stab tourists, their vehicles and even a park ranger with his antlers during the fall rut, bull elk No. 6 has been somewhat memorialized in a new exhibit at the remodeled Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo.
“It’s only No. 6’s antlers, so we’re trying to have him represent the species rather than him as an individual,” said Tami Blackford, deputy chief of interpretive planning and media development at Yellowstone National Park. “We call it a safety exhibit so people can stand next to him and see how big he is.”
Safety around Yellowstone’s wildlife is just one of the themes the remodeled center is emphasizing. It’s a message visitors would be wise to heed, considering that already this season two tourists have been gored by bison after getting too close to the animals.
“Even cow elk, they’re fiercely protective of their calves at this time of year,” said Jo Suderman, exhibit specialist for Yellowstone. “Any time of year elk can be aggressive and dangerous and unpredictable. That’s one of the stories we struggle to get people to understand.”
The Albright Visitor Center is housed in the old bachelor officers’ quarters built in 1909 for the Army when it was stationed in the park to halt poaching. The three-story stone structure, which also has a full basement, was completely gutted “down to the stone walls” by Swank Enterprises’ construction crews, Blackford said.
The $8.1 million project started in September 2013 and included reinforcing the stone walls with metal framing to mitigate possible earthquake damage while also strengthening the building. The last time the building was renovated was in 1978.
“One of the bigger changes is that now visitors have to come inside and go downstairs to get to the bathroom,” Blackford said. “And now the building is wheelchair-accessible from the front, you used to have to come in through the back.”
The redesign preserved some of the historic fixtures like windows, doors and fireplaces, but now provides more natural light to the interior with new office space on the third floor. The renovations were designed by CTA Architects Engineers.
For the 18 months that the building was closed, a temporary visitor center housed in a trailer house was set up in the parking lot. That has now been removed.
A grand opening celebration will be held on July 12 at 10 a.m. with former superintendent Bob Barbee and superintendent Dan Wenk participating.
Once all of the construction work was done, Pacific Studio of Seattle began installing the new exhibits.
“We did reuse most of the taxidermy, but now they are displayed in more of their natural habitat,” said Suderman, who oversaw the exhibit contract. “The themes are similar to what they were before: wildlife in the Northern Range as well as park history.”
A Northern Range landscape diorama has been set up in what was the old theater to help visitors understand where they might be able to see certain wildlife. There are elk, bear and bison safety exhibits where visitors can get an idea of how large the animals are, while learning about where they can be viewed in the park, how fast they can run and advice on staying as far as possible away from them.
“Part of the beauty of this is that people can get right up next to the animals to see how big they are,” Suderman said.
There’s also a tactile map for the blind or people with vision impairments to feel the layout of the park’s roads and terrain. And there are tactile animal tracks for visitors to touch. An interactive map shows which roads are closed with plans to add campground and lodging status.
Also still to be added is an audio tour of the center for the hearing impaired.
“We wanted to increase the access of the exhibits so everyone could enjoy them,” Blackford said.
The basement contains the cultural history exhibits, such as the development of Yellowstone National Park and the National Park Service. People can even record their thoughts about national parks at one exhibit. Also downstairs is the backcountry rangers’ office where backpackers can obtain camping permits.
The $2.35 million in exhibit work was funded by the Yellowstone Association, which now has a separate area for its bookstore within the visitor center.
Old No. 6
The new facility seems a fitting place to house old No. 6’s antlers. Every fall the bull would alternately delight and terrify camera-toting tourists in Mammoth with his bugling and macho displays meant to attract cow elk for breeding while scaring off competing bulls. His aggressive behavior twice got him in trouble with park officials, who in 2004 and 2005 had his antlers sawed off in attempts to lessen his belligerence.
The 725-pound bull lived to age 15. He died a humiliating death after catching his hoof while jumping over a fence. He fell onto his back and couldn’t get up, suffocating to death on the outskirts of the nearby town of Gardiner. In the wake of his death, admirers started a Facebook page for the elk.
“He’s an impressive bull, he’s pretty cool,” said Richard Bradberry, a taxidermist and owner of Wildlife Artistry in Livingston.
It was Bradberry who mounted No. 6’s antlers onto a form and sewed up a donated hide to create the new bull elk exhibit. The bull’s original hide was not usable.
“It’s cool that he will be seen by so many people,” Bradberry said.