Nowhere to Everywhere

Elk remain the best evidence yet that we are living in a Golden Age for wildlife

By Rob Breeding

When I moved to Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in 1992, I quickly became a skeptic of the area legend that elk had been hunted to local extinction in the 1800s. The robust herds that occupied the surrounding mountains in modern times were all descendants of elk relocated to the valley by the Stevensville Rod and Gun Club in 1912, or so the legend went.

Those elk arrived by train from Yellowstone National Park and were released in the Burnt Fork drainage, east of town.

The story suggested there had never been many elk in the Bitterroot to begin with, which also explained the near starvation of the Lewis and Clark expedition when those intrepid explorers crossed the mountains near Lolo Pass into Nez Perce country.

An adjunct of this tale was that elk were plains animals by nature, and only sought refuge in the Bitterroot Mountains when driven there by the frenzy of 19th century market hunters desperate to satiate the craving for canned elk tongue in cities of the East.

Sure, elk thrive on the plains, but they also thrive in mountains and deserts — these days elk are turning up in the strangest places in the Arizona Sonoran — and just about anywhere they find sufficient food, water, open space and proper wildlife management.

The Stevensville Rod and Gun Club jumpstarted the Bitterroot’s 20th century elk restoration, but I think the remnant populations in western Montana would have pulled it off, regardless.

Not every place elk once lived retained remnant populations to reoccupy the country once market hunting was replaced by science-based game management, however.

The southwest’s Merriam’s subspecies was hunted to extinction by the close of the 19th century. Rocky Mountain elk, also from Yellowstone, were translocated to the country near Winslow, Arizona, about the same time as they arrived in the Burnt Fork.

Modern DNA studies ultimately determined those legendary Merriam’s elk in Arizona were actually just Rocky Mountain elk living on the edge of their historic range.

The legend of the Merriam’s was fueled in part by limited historical evidence. There are only a handful of antlers from pre-extirpation Arizona elk, and a few of those racks were palmated like moose antlers. This led to the misconception that Merriam’s regularly sported huge palmated antlers, rather than just rarely, as is the case with Rocky Mountain elk.

This is why small sample sizes are so unreliable.

Whatever the variety, Arizona still produces heavily antlered elk. One of modernity’s most reliable paths to a 400+ trophy elk is to draw an early season Arizona archery tag during the rut. Reliable, if you beat the odds to be drawn in the first place.

On the far side of the Mississippi River, the eastern elk subspecies was driven to extinction earlier than Arizona’s — during western expansion over the Appalachian Mountains in the early half of the 19th century.

With an assist from the modern-day rod and gun clubs — state game departments practicing the North American Model of Wildlife Management — elk have returned to the East. Arizona elk now roam the reclaimed coal mines of eastern Kentucky, and in Pennsylvania, hunters killed 105 elk in 2020 in the central part of the state.

While it’s not quite east of the Mississippi, Missouri held its first official elk hunt ever this fall. Five hunters were drawn from a pool of more than 19,000 applicants, and all five filled their tags. Elk restoration began in the Show Me State in 2011.

Driven to small remnant populations in pockets of the remote West, elk are again everywhere. They remain the best evidence yet that we are living in a Golden Age for wildlife.

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