Nature Notes

Ashford, Washington

Vol. II January-February, 1987 No. 11

Nature Notes is issued bimonthly by the Naturalist Staff of Mount Rainier National Park. Material contained herein may be used freely in any manner, provided credit is given to this pamphlet and the author.
William F. Dengler
Chief Park Naturalist
Neal G. Guse

Some Englishman once said, "Civilisation is possessing power without flaunting it." Elk ain't civilised.

The size of a horse, lean and mean, your average elk has the power to do just about anything it feels like. Even the cow -- at 500-600 pounds she's a tad smaller than the 600-800 pound bull -- can leap a six-foot cyclone fence from a standing start. Barbed wire? The elk simply keeps walking -- and listens as the strands snap.

There was a day, and not many years ago, when it seemed that all the power in the world couldn't save the elk. Extremely abundant as the west opened up, they were hunted almost to extinction. A market hunter with a penchant for careful note-taking recorded in 1878 that he supplied Leadville, Colorado with 35,000 pounds of elk meat in three months. This was in addition to the bear meat, venison, etc., etc., that he sold.

In a very few years, except for a few small pockets of animals, the elk were gone. Only seven states reported any at all. Then Yellowstone and several other areas were designated as national parks -- animal preserves. And Yellowstone still had elk. Within a few years the Yellowstone herd was burgeoning.

Eager game managers transplanted Yellowstone elk into ranges that had not heard bugling for a generation. From 1905 on, hunting seasons (called by some the death knell of the Old West) helped the emigrant herds to hold on and increase. Extensive logging helped, too, for elk prefer wood margins where they can rest in forest by day and night browse abroad in open meadows morning and evening.

The elk population here in the northwest (one of the few areas where they had never been extirpated) responded so rapidly to this nurturing that in 1916 they ate themselves out of house and home and thousands starved. Since then our elk herds have been thriving, responding normally to the ancient nudges of the changing seasons.

During the autumn rut, early September into the first of November, approximately, bulls vie for harems with a gusto that makes bar room brawls look civilised. After a prescribed ritual of bugling, challenging and strutting their stuff (the ultimate in flaunting power), the bulls fling their third-of-a ton bulks upon each other, parrying with racks of antlers that can spread five feet. Very occasionally the elaborate racks become enmeshed so badly the combatants can't separate; locked together, they die of starvation and dehydration.

Are the ladies really worth all that? They are rather pretty with their tawny coats and graceful strolling gait. They're productive, too. A cow first breeds at about age two and will bear a calf a year for most of her life (wild elk, naturalists estimate, probably live about ten years).

The calf weighs in at 30 or 40 pounds and stands a yard high at birth. Mama separates herself from her companions during the actual birth, usually in May or June, but within a few days she rejoins her loose association of cows and yearlings. Come fall, bulls with delusions of their own prowess will assemble harems of cows and calves -- perhaps a couple, perhaps fifteen or twenty. Young of the year stay with Mama during this re-sorting, but yearling bulls are driven off if they haven't left Mom already.

The yearling bulls wander about looking lost or batch it together informally. Like their sisters they mature at age two but they probably won't breed for several years yet; not fully grown, they lack power to flaunt before the BIG bulls, so they have no ladies to consort with. However, being uncivilised, a young bull has no compunctions about swiping a lady if he gets half a chance.

To thwart this wanton pilferage, bulls with harems patrol constantly, not eating, hardly sleeping, mating frequently. By the end of autumn rut they've lost considerable weight, a serious set-back for animals that must survive severe winters.

Elk hedge survival by migrating vertically. As snow closes down the high country, harems split and regroup (the bulls and cows both having lost interest in the whole thing). The new associations, herds of two or three or herds of three hundred move downslope seeking reliable grass and browse.

Three elk will consume as much forage as does one domestic cow, and, as previously mentioned, elk have no regard for fences. Ranchers struggling with low profit margins do not take kindly to the destruction of range and property a thousand wintering elk can inflict.

But the elk's visits are temporary. With the return of spring and clement weather, they'll drift back up into the meadows and forest margins of the high country -- well, that's the theory. A few elk lately are questioning the wisdom of putting forth any migratory effort at all. They're staying low all year, where the living is easy, the food good, and the farmers understandably irate.

Large elk populations don't limit their vandalism to winter ranges, either. A surplus of elk will destroy high alpine meadows, fragile ecosystems that require decades or even centuries to recover.

Where do the elk's right of passage end and the ranchers' rights of property take over? A sticky question. Wildlife biologists, game managers, park personnel and ranchers' groups grope for answers as the elk go their merry way. The elk know who has the power. And they flaunt it.

Sandy Dengler

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