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Vol. IXV January-February, 1939 Nos. 1-2

District Ranger Leon Evans

The economic history of the North American continent is one of rapid consumption and dissipation of the vast store of natural resources which were being constantly revealed by the pioneers as the frontiers moved steadily westward. The countless buffalo, deer, antelope and elk and other game animals were but one of the riches which were squandered without thought of the future. When the grim spectre of scarcity began to thrust its forbidding form into the path of progress, a small but agressive group of far-seeing leaders began an intensive campaign to shatter the illusion of a limitless supply of everything in nature's storehouse. Sober thought and intelligent foresight resulted in the birth of a vigorous conservation movement which extended its influence far and wide. Men began to search the past for information concerning the wild game with the motive of restoring their depleted or barren game covers and protecting the remnants of the big game which had survived the thoughtless slaughter and crowding.

At the time Yellowstone National Park was established there was no thought of conservation of wildlife; nevertheless it was fortunate some of the big game herds found sanctuary within its borders. A brief history of the Wapiti (Cervus canadensis) in North America and particularly in the Yellowstone region may shed some light on the vital problem of game management which we face at the present time.

M. P. Skinner,1 in referring to the beginnings and early history of the American Wapiti states, "Although the Elk seem the most typical of our animals, a true American if there ever was one, still it is a fact that they originated in Asia, where the present stock, looking exactly like our animal, is still found. In prehistoric days, Alaska and Asia were united across Bering Sea, and many of our animals crossed over and colonized the New World."

It seems apparent that the wapiti found the new range well adapted to their needs for Hornaday2 observes, "The former range of the elk covered absolutely the garden ground of our continent, omitting the arid region. Its boundary extended from central Massachusetts to northern Georgia, southern Illinois, northern Texas and central New Mexico, central Arizona, the whole Rocky Mountain region up to the Peace River and Manitoba. It skipped the arid country west of the Rockies but embraced practically the whole Pacific slope from central California to the north end of Vancouver Island."

The accounts of writers of the early period of American history frequently mention the elk. They were called "stags" by LaSalle3 when he marched west to explore the Mississippi. A Dr. Barton,4 writing in 1806, gives this description, "Within the memory of many persons new living, the droves of Elks which used to frequent the salinas (salt licks) in Pennsylvania were so great that for 5 or 6 miles leading to the "licks" the paths of these animals were as large as many of the great public roads of our country." Seton5 estimated the range of the elk at the time of the first American settlements at 2,500,000 square miles or slightly less than that of the buffalo, and their numbers at 10,000,000 or about one-fifth that of the buffalo.

The slaughter of the great herds of American game continued with the westward march of the pioneers from the time they first ventured from the original settlements on the Atlantic coasts. The meat supply for the average frontier family was expected to come from the woods and as the population in any given area increased the game decreased in approximately inverse proportion. It appears that this process continued until the lands were completely utilized by man and the larger game animals were almost completely exterminated.

Seton6 records the killing of the last of the Pennsylvania elk in 1867 and continues with the story of the passing of the herds of the Pacific coast region, "The vast herds of California elk that roamed the open valley of the San Joqaquin in 1850, were killed with unusual rapidity because they could be followed on horseback. In nine short years, the elk had become so scarce that individuals were followed for days till secured."

Skinner7 found the early history of the game animals of the Yellowstone somewhat sketchy but records the following, "When the pioneers first entered the western plains and mountains they found there a wonderful aggregation of large animals, especially on the broad, wide open prairies and plains. In the mountains, all of the different species were represented by more scattered individuals, probably because the mountains did not contain such a superabundance of food so widely distributed. In later days wild life was more abundant in the mountains. That this was not so originally, we find very evident from a careful perusal of Lewis and Clark's journals. While they were on the plains, and right up to the time they entered the mountains, these explorers were able to supply themselves with an abundance of fresh meat. But after they entered the mountains, game practically ceased to exist; and when they met the Shoshoni Indians on the headwaters of the Jefferson River even the Indians had only salmon and berry cakes to trade with them."

The early part of the nineteenth century marked the rise of the fur trade in the Rocky Mountain region but this was carried on by relatively small groups of hardy adventurers who lived much after the fashion of the Indians with whom they came in contact. Their diet consisted almost entirely of meat and while on the plains their needs were amply supplied by the vast herds of buffalo. However, upon reaching the region of the foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains, they were removed from the main range of the buffalo and were forced to change their diet to deer, elk and antelope. Chittenden8 records the part played by the elk in the early fur trade: "The elk was always an important animal to the hunter and trapper, although for flesh mainly. Next to the buffalo, it was probably the most generally eaten. Its wide distribution, large size and comparative ease of capture made it a great resource when buffalo could not be had. Its meat was excellent, and a good elk steak ranked well with domestic beef. The hide of the elk was but little used, except for certain special purposes, being inferior for general use to that of other animals."

The period beginning about 1850 witnessed the decline of the fur trade and a great influx of emigrants who were planning to establish themselves in California and Oregon. The herds of buffalo began to fall before the guns of the hide hunters, the emigrants and the professional hunters who later supplied meat for the builders of the railroads. During this time the elk herds were heavily drawn upon for food and the market hunters, during the entire latter half of time century, slaughtered them by thousands for the channels of commerce. It has been estimated7 that 90 per cent of the big game remaining west of the Mississippi River consisted of the herds which had been forced to retreat to the mountains to escape the merciless slaughter. These survivors were the animals which were later to be the nucleus of the restoration program and the game herds of the present.

Early accounts of travels and explorations of the Yellowstone Park region strongly indicate that while big game was rather plentiful along the lower reaches of the Yellowstone River (within the park) and its tributaries, the high plateau country which constitutes the greater part of the park area was almost devoid of game.7 "As a game country in those early days, it could not compare with the lower surrounding valleys." (Chittenden, '18, p. 11). When the discovery party led by Washburn, Langford and Doane, explored the then unknown headwaters of the Yellowstone, they found very few animals present. They speak of an antelope killed in the Blacktail Valley and that they had plenty of venison in camp that night but there was no more game killed during their remaining four weeks of travel through what is now the finest of the Yellowstone game regions. (cf. Langford, '05, pp. 15, 19) In fact, it is really astonishing how few animals this party did see. * * * *

"The Government Hayden Survey of 1871 saw even fewer animals. Although they had professional hunters with them, employed especially to keep the survey supplied with meat, Dr. Hayden says: 'Our hunters returned, after diligent search for two and a half days (from their camp at South Arm, Yellowstone Lake) with only a black-tailed deer, which, though poor, was a most important addition to our larder.' (Hayden '72, p. 131) And this is the only animal recorded in this report."

The Earl of Dunraven records this discouraging note near the completion of his travel in Yellowstone Park in 187410, "We had counted upon getting plenty of game, deer or elk, all through the trip and had arranged the commissariat accordingly. But we had grievously miscalculated either our own skill or the resources of the country for an atom of fresh meat had we tasted for days. Trout I had devoured until I was ashamed to look them in the face."

In the early summer of 1860, the Raynolds party attempted to enter the Park, first from the east and then from the south but were unable to reach Yellowstone Lake because of snow. They therefore skirted the southern and western boundaries and make mention of the abundance of elk found on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River. Mr. N.P. Langford, the first Superintendent, entered the region from what is now the state of Idaho and was impressed with the amount of game seen, for his route was principally through the region bordering the high plateau. In his report for 187211 it is evident that he realized, at this early period of the Park's history, the necessity for protecting the game, for this recommendation is made by him: "The wild game of all kinds with which the park abounds should be protected by law, and all hunting, trapping and fishing within its boundaries, except for purposes of recreation by visitors and tourists, or for use by actual residents of the park, should be prohibited under severe penalties."

There is ample evidence that the ravages of the hid and meat hunters extended to the game ranges of what is now Yellowstone Park. Superintendent P. W. Norris in his report for the year 187712 cites the necessity for protection of the game, "From the unquestioned fact that over 2,000 hides of the huge Rocky Mountain Elk, nearly as many each of the Bighorn sheep, deer and antelope, and scores if not hundreds of moose and bison were taken out of the park in the spring of 1875, probably 7,000 or an annual average of 1,000 of them, and hundreds if not thousands of each of these other animals have been thus killed since its discovery in 1870."

Harry Yount received his appointment as Gamekeeper (the first in the Park) early in 1880 and as a result of some degree of enforcement of the hunting and trapping regulation the Superintendent was able to report an increase in all species of game within the Park. For brief periods the Gamekeeper had two assistants but Superintendent B. W. Wear, in his report of 1885, states that the protection of game was far from perfect as it naturally would be when the vast size of the Park and the comparatively small size of the protective force are taken into consideration. However, the degree of protection afforded was sufficient for the game to make a gradual increase. Captain Moses Harris entered the park in August 1886 with a troop of cavalry to take over the administration and protection of the area and later that year reported, "From the reports of reliable scouts, familiar with the ranges of the elk, the deer and the buffalo, there can be but little doubt that there is an abundance of game in the park. I am confident that up to the present date there have been no depredations of any magnitude, and that the game has been well protected."

The continued increase in the number of animals of the larger species was very encouraging to those who were responsible for their protection for Acting Superintendent Harris, in his report of 1887, continues to maintain a very optomistic view of the game situation, "I am gratified to be able to report that the rules for the protection of the game in the Park have been generally well observed and respected. One or two isolated instances of unlawful killing have occurred but immense herds of elk have passed the winter along the traveled road from Gardiner to Cooke City with the same safety which herds of domestic range cattle enjoy. It is difficult to form any accurate estimate concerning the number of elk that passed the winter in the Park; certain it is that the number that wintered in the valley of the Lamar River and on its tributaries have been estimated by all who saw them at several thousands."

The Superintendent's report for 1890 merely indicates the continued increase in the number of big game animals, "The number of elk in the Park is something wonderful. In the neighborhood of Soda Butte, herds were seen last winter estimated at from 2,000 to 3,000. The whole open country of the Park seems stocked to its capacity for feeding." It is of more than passing interest to note that Captain Boutelle, the acting Superintendent, noted the possibility of the herds growing in size to the point where the range would be insufficient for their winter needs.

The first mention of serious winter losses is made after the hard winter of 1891-92.13 The situation, as summarized the following summer, however, was not discouraging, "The elk are extremely numerous, and I am not disposed to revise in the least my estimate of 25,000 made last year. The very severe winter was extremely hard on them, and I judge that from 2,000 to 5,000 perished. This is not an alarming mortality among so many when it is considered that the deaths of the previous winter were unusually few."

The various administrative and protective officers were severely handicapped in their efforts to protect the game and other park features for their power to punish poachers and other vandals was limited to the confiscation of the violator's equipment and the removal of the offenders from the Park. However, in May 1894, the President signed the Yellowstone Protective Act which prohibited the killing of any animals within the park and provided penalties for offenders. This act also provided for the appointment of a United States Commissioner for the Park and to this official was given the power to hold trial and to impose penalties on persons found guilty of the violation of the Rules and Regulations governing the Park. This marked the beginning of the era of absolute protection for the natural features and the game in Yellowstone.

Under the advantages provided by this effective protection from man the elk seemed to increase gradually in all sections of the park but this was particularly true of the herd which had its winter range on the Yellowstone River and its tributaries. Lieutenant Elmer Lindsley in a special report on game conditions for the season of 1897 makes this very timely observation:14 "The Park furnishes an ideal summer range for 40,000 elk, but there is not much winter range for one-fourth that number."

From 1906 through 1911, the size of the Northern Yellowstone elk herd was variously estimated at from 25,000 to 40,000 but the more conservative figure appears to have been nearer the actual number. During April of 1912, the first actual count was attempted with thee result that 27,801 animals were counted in the park and 2,300 were seen in areas adjacent to the north boundary, making a total of 30,101 animals in what the Acting Superintendent refers to as "an approximate accurate census."

All species of game had diminished rapidly during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Hide hunters, professional market hunters and the ordinary variety of game hog had written a disgraceful chapter of American history. Legitimate sportsmen and settlers, who depended upon the wild game for food, had also extracted their toll. No wonder then that the turn of the new century found all game species greatly reduced in numbers and the larger animals completely exterminated from great areas of their former ranges. The wildlife of Yellowstone narrowly escaped the same fate for the Act of March 1, 1872, creating Yellowstone National Park provided protection none too soon. Early in 1900, after a discouraging survey of the ruins, there came the dawn of a new era. The idea of protection and restoration was forced upon the American people but the growth of the new point of view was rapid and encouraging. This created a demand for animals to restock the barren or depleted sections. In 1912, one hundred six elk were shipped from the park to the state of Washington and thirty-one went to Glacier Park. The state of Montana captured five carloads near the town of Gardiner and shipped them to various parts of the state. Although a few elk had previously been shipped from the park to zoological gardens and parks, this was the beginning of the practice of removing part of the surplus from the Yellowstone herd for stocking less fortunate areas. This policy was extended during the early months of 1913 when over 500 elk were trapped and shipped from the northern part of the park.

An elk census was conducted during April 1913, and 32,967 were counted. As this number remained after the shipments and winter losses had been accounted for, it is evident that the herd as a whole was growing steadily. The estimated total of the spring of 1915 was 37,192 and this probably represents the peak in numbers reached by the northern herd.

Although previous large winter losses have been noted, the first major reverse suffered by the elk herds in the northern Yellowstone region occurred during the winter of 1916-17. Weather conditions became severe much earlier than usual and the winter forage of the elk was buried under a considerable depth of snow. Long time residents freely voiced the opinion that it was the worst winter they could recall. Previous to that time some hay had been fed to the deer and antelope but the deep snow drove the elk to the feed grounds where many of them shared the small ration of hay with the Bighorn sheep, antelope and deer. Heavy losses of domestic stock occurred but damage to the elk herd was even greater. An elk census of early April 1916, showed 29,544 elk in the northern herd while a count made under similar conditions in May 1917, revealed that the number had been reduced to 19,345. Some live shipments had been made but the vast majority of the losses were attributed to hunter's guns in the adjoining area and the severe winter.

As if to compensate for the hardships endured by most living things during the winter of 1916-17, the two following winters were rather mild and the snow depths much below normal; in fact the winter of 1918-19 was the mildest on record up to that time. Great herds of elk wintered outside the park while some preferred to remain inside and a few even shared the hay on the feed grounds, apparently as a matter of habit acquired previously. Losses from all causes were small and the herd again enjoyed a rapid increase in numbers and the Park Superintendent estimated their numbers at about 25,000 in the spring of 1919.

Following the second mild winter came the unusually dry summer of 1919. There was almost a total lack of rainfall over the entire region during the growing season. As a result of this deficiency in precipitation, practically no forage was produced on the open ranges, placing both the game herds and domestic stock in a very precarious position for the coming winter. Hay crops were light but most of the supplies available for winter feed had been carried over from the two previous light winters.

The Superintendent's report for 1920 records a tragic story, "On October 22nd, came a very severe snowstorm, which covered the whole country with from one to three feet of snow and stopped all motor traffic throughout the Park. * * * The elk immediately began going down and leaving the park by thousands. * * * The laws of the State of Montana permit the killing of elk in Park County from October 15th., to December 24th. * * * Hunters came in droves, from all directions and every method of transportation was used -- on foot, with saddle and pack trains, automobiles and trucks, but by far the greater number came on the daily trains to Gardiner. The slaughter is only rivaled by the tremendous slaughter of buffalo on the plains in the early days."

An estimated 8,000 elk fell before the guns of the hunters or died of wounds. Those that survived faced an even more relentless enemy in the forces of nature. November and December were extremely cold and brought a continuation of the heavy snowfall of October. January and February were mild but hopes of an early spring were shattered by a perverse Nature, for March, April and May were among the most severe on record.

The former winter territory of elk was by this time completely occupied by farms and ranches and there was no place for them to go. A valiant effort was made to combat the influences of extreme cold, deep snow, and short forage by purchasing hay at prices that ranged from $25 per ton in the stacks near the town of Gardiner, to $52.60 per ton for baled hay which was shipped in by rail. Approximately 1,429 tons of hay were fed to the deer, Bighorn sheep, antelope and about 8,000 elk which were forced in to the feed grounds. A total of $61,209 was expended for the purchase of hay but despite the most strenuous attempts to defeat the forces of nature the losses of game were appalling.

The estimated 25,000 elk of the spring of 1919 were reduced to 11,000 by the time the new grass came a year later. Under the stress of unusual conditions, counts of absolute accuracy were not secured but the estimates which we are forced to accept were made by men of considerable experience. The history of the northern elk herd is summarized in practical fashion by W. M. Rush:15 "(1) The Park area was not originally heavily stocked with game animals, (2) The numbers of elk and other animals increased to such an extent that they were forced to migrate from the Park in search of food, and (3) extremely heavy losses occurred in the elk herd during severe winters."

The series of events which produced the heavy reduction of the Northern Elk Herd demonstrated clearly that the protection of elk from excessive slaughter by hunters was not a solution to the problem confronting the agencies responsible for the big game conservation of the region. While the plateau region of Yellowstone Park provided ample summer range for an elk herd of tremendous proportions, the available winter range was but a small part of the total area of the Park and would provide forage for only a very limited number of animals. During the winters of extreme severity, the sections of the range where the elk could forage were definitely limited, yet these critical periods constituted a bottle neck through which the game would have to pass without too much difficulty if a satisfactory and permanent status were to be achieved. Since it is neither natural nor desirable to maintain an elk herd of huge size which would necessitate expensive feeding operations each winter, the logical solution seems an elk herd small enough to secure ample forage during the long winters without undue crowding or competition with each other or with the antelope, Bighorn sheep or deer which share the same winter range. Previous experience has demonstrated that wild game animals fares much better when able to forage for themselves than when they are forced together on congested feed grounds.

The first large kill of elk in the Gardiner area occurred in 1911 and about that time the first objective studies of the elk problem were started with the United States Forest Service and the Biological Survey cooperating. The "Graves-Nelsen Report of 1917" was made by the chiefs of those organizations and contained definite recommendations for further study of the problem. Few questioned the necessity of careful investigations of the problem to be used as a basis for determining future policies governing management of wild game resources.

From December 1, 1928, to April 1, 1952, W. M. Rush had charge of an intensive investigation. The funds for the work of the first year were privately contributed while the balance of the work was financed jointly by the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Montana State Game Commission. These agencies were aided in the actual work by the technical advice furnished by the Biological Survey. Some rather startling disclosures resulted from this thoroughgoing investigation. Of these the most serious was the following:16 "The winter range inside the Park has deteriorated more than 50% since 1914 due to overgrazing and drouth. Both sheet and gully erosion are taking place. Non-forage plants are taking the place of valuable forage plants.--Browse species of forage will disappear in the next 15 to 20 years if a marked improvement does not take place in the range in the next five years."

The National Park Service and the Forest Service vigorously pursued the studies which were discontinued in April of 1932 by Mr. Rush. Range study plots were established, rangers were assigned to range study work to determine as nearly as possible the amount of forage being produced on the range and well organized counts were conducted each year. The reports of those current studies were even less encouraging than those of Mr. Rush. Severe drouth conditions had produced their adverse effects on the range while the winters were not severe enough in their early periods to cause a migration of elk into open hunting territory before the season closed. Hunting kills from the Northern herd for the six seasons prior to the fall of 1934 had yielded less than 300 per season. The elk census of the spring of 1934 had shown 13,000 in the Northern Herd, a number far above the carrying capacity of the seriously damage range, which had suffered the continued ill effects of drought and overgrazing.

It was only too apparent that a larger reduction would have to be effected if large numbers of elk were not to be lost through starvation during the next hard winter for the number present could not possibly survive such a winter on the meagre forage supply produced by the winter range. It was decided that if hunting kills and live shipments did not produce the desired reduction of 3,000 head it would be necessary to slaughter additional animals to help attain the reduction goal, the meat to go to the various Indian and relief agencies. The weather of the early part of the hunting season was mild and the kill was light so preparations were made to proceed with the slaughtering operations. The season was scheduled to close January 10, 1935, but about that time prompt action by the Montana Legislature extended the open season to March 1, with the proviso that it could be closed after five days notice. This enabled the hunters to secure a total of 2557 elk and consequently the slaughtering operations were brought to a close after only 223 animals had been disposed of by that means.

During the past five years, the hunting kill has averaged about 2300 per year and the slaughtering program within the Park has been unnecessary. There must be a choice made between a well regulated management program which provides for reduction by live shipments and hunter's kill or we may expect nature to take a hand in repetitions of the disasters of the winters of 1916-17 and 1919-20. It must also be kept in mind that large masses of starving animals are forced to utilize every bit of vegetation they can find so that the forage production is lowered even further in future years.

While the reduction program has taken care of the natural increase and effected a small reduction during the past five seasons, a census of March 1938, showed that there were 11,000 elk in the Northern Herd. The count was well organized and conducted under ideal conditions and is considered to be one of the most accurate ever made in the Park.


Subsequent articles this series will deal with range studies and efforts which have been made to meet this situation and other management problems connected with the Yellowstone elk.


1 The Yellowstone Nature Book, M. F. Skinner, p. 101.

2 Our Vanishing Wildlife, Hornaday, pp. 164-165.

3 Voy. de N. Cabalier de la LaSalle a la Ribiere Mississippi par le Pere Allouez, par Pierie Margy, II, p. 97. (See Seton, Lives of Game Animals, Vol. III).

4 Lives of Game Animals, Vol. 3, Seton, p. 12

5 ibid. p. 14

6 Lives of Game Animals, Vol. 3, Seton, p. 16.

7 Roosevelt Wildlife Bulletin, Vol. 4, #2, M. P. Skinner, pp. 169-171

8 The American Fur Trade, Vol. 2, H. M. Chittenden, p. 816.

10 The Great Divide, Dunraven, Ch. 9, p. 336.

11 Annual Report of the Superintendent of Yellowstone, Langford, 1872, p. 4.

12 Annual Report of the Superintendent of Yellowstone, Norris, p. 842.

13 Annual Report of 1892, Gee. S. Anderson, p. 10

14 Annual Report of 1897 (Special Report), Elmer Lindsley, p. 26.

15 Northern Yellowstone Elk Study, W. M. Rush, p. 26.

16 Northern Yellowstone Elk Study, W. M. Rush, p. 126.

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