Guest Writer George O Shields
“Those who wish to pet and baby wildlife love them, but those who respect their natures and wish to let them live their natural lives, love them more.” ~Edwin Way Teale
OF all the large game on the American continent, the elk (Cervus canadensis) is the noblest, the grandest, the stateliest. I would detract nothing from the noble game qualities of the moose, caribou, deer, or mountain sheep. Each has its peculiar points of excellence which endear it to the heart of the sportsman, but the elk possesses more than any of the others. In size he towers far above all, except the moose. In sagacity, caution, cunning, and wariness he is the peer, if not the superior, of them all. He is always on the alert, his keen scent, his piercing eye, his acute sense of hearing, combining to render him a vigilant sentinel of his own safety.
His great size and powerful muscular construction give him almost unbounded endurance. When alarmed or pursued he will travel for twenty or thirty hours, at a rapid swinging trot, without stopping for food or rest. He is a proud, fearless ranger, and even when simply migrating from one range of mountains to another, will travel from seventy-five to a hundred miles without lying down. He is a marvelous mountaineer, and, considering his immense size and weight, often ascends to heights that seem incredible. He may often be found away up to timber line, and will traverse narrow passes and defiles, climbing over walls of rock and through fissures where it would seem impossible for so large an animal, with such massive antlers as he carries, to go. He chooses his route, however, with rare good judgment, and all mountaineers know that an elk trail is the best that can possibly be selected over any given section of mountainous country. His faculty of traversing dense jungles and windfalls is equally astonishing. If given his own time, he will move quietly and easily through the worst of these, leaping over logs higher than his back as gracefully and almost as lightly as the deer; yet let a herd of elk be alarmed and start on a run through one of these labyrinthine masses, and they will make a noise like a regiment of cavalry on a precipitous charge.
I have stood on the margin of a quaking-asp thicket and heard a large band of elk coming toward me that had been “jumped” and fired upon by my friend at the other side, and the frightful noise of their horns pounding the trees, their hoofs striking each other and the numerous rocks, the crashing of dead branches, with the snorting of the affrighted beasts, might well have struck terror to the heart of anyone unused to such sights and sounds, and have caused him to seek safety in flight. But by standing my ground I was enabled to get in a couple of shots at short range, and to bring down two of the finest animals in the herd.
The whistle of the elk is a sound which many have tried to describe, yet I doubt if anyone who may have read all the descriptions of it ever written would recognize it on a first hearing. It is a most strange, weird, peculiar sound, baffling all efforts of the most skillful word-painter. It is only uttered by the male, and there is the same variety in the sound made by different stags as in different human voices. Usually the cry begins and ends with a sort of grunt, somewhat like the bellow of a domestic cow cut short, but the interlude is a long-drawn, melodious, flutelike sound that rises and falls with a rhythmical cadence, floating on the still evening air, by which it is often wafted with singular distinctness to great distances. By other individuals, or even by the same individual at various times, either the first or last of these abrupt sounds is omitted, and only the other, in connection with the long-drawn, silver-toned strain, is given.
The stag utters this call only in the love-making season, and for the purpose of ascertaining the whereabouts of his dusky mate, who responds by a short and utterly unmusical sound, similar to that with which the male begins or ends his call.
Once, when exploring in Idaho, I had an interesting and exciting experience with a band of elk. I had camped for the night on a high divide, between two branches of the Clearwater river. The weather had been intensely dry and hot for several days, and the tall rye grass that grew in the old burn where I had pitched my camp was dry as powder. There was a gentle breeze from the south. Fearing that a spark might be carried into the grass, I extinguished my camp-fire as soon as I had cooked and eaten my supper. As darkness drew on, I went out to picket my horses and noticed that they were acting strangely. They were looking down the mountain side with ears pointed forward, sniffing the air and moving about uneasily.
I gave their picket ropes a turn around convenient jack pines, and then slipping cautiously back to the tent, got my rifle and returned. I could see nothing strange and sat down beside a log to await developments. In a few minutes I heard a dead limb break. Then there was a rustling in a bunch of tall, dry grass; more snapping of twigs and shaking of bushes. I ascertained that there were several large animals moving toward me and feared it might be a family of bears. I feared it, I say, because it was now so dark that I could not see to shoot at any distance, and knew that if bears came near the horses the latter would break their ropes and stampede. I thought of shouting and trying to frighten them off, but decided to await developments. Presently I heard a snapping of hoofs and a succession of dull, heavy, thumping noises, accompanied by reports of breaking brush, which I knew at once were made by a band of elk jumping over a high log.
The game was now not more than fifty yards away and in open ground, yet I could not see even a movement, for I was looking down toward a dark cañon [canyon], many hundreds of feet deep. Slowly the great beasts worked toward me. They were coming down wind and I felt sure could not scent me, but they could evidently see my horses, outlined against the sky, and had doubtless heard them snorting and moving about.
The ponies grew more anxious but less frightened than at first, and seemed now desirous of making the acquaintance of their wild visitors.
Slowly the elk moved forward until within thirty or forty feet of me, when I could begin to discern by the starlight their dark, shaggy forms. Then they stopped. I could hear them sniffing the air and could see them moving cautiously from place to place, apparently suspicious of danger. But they were coming down wind, could get no indication of my presence, and were anxious to interview the horses.
They moved slowly forward, and when they stopped this time, two old bulls and one cow, who were in the front rank, so to speak, stood within ten feet of me. Their great horns towered up like the branches of dead trees, and I could hear them breathe.
Again they circled from side to side and I thought surely they would get far enough to one quarter or the other to wind me, but they did not. Several other cows and two timid little calves crowded to the front to look at their hornless cousins who now stood close behind me, and even in the starlight, I could have shot any one of them between the eyes.
My saddle cayuse uttered a low gentle whinny, whereat the whole band wheeled and dashed away; but after making a few leaps their momentary scare seemed to subside, and they stopped, looked, snorted a few times and then began to edge up again—this time even more shyly than before.
It was intensely interesting to study the caution and circumspection with which these creatures planned and carried out their investigation all the way through.
The only mistake they made, and one at which I was surprised, considering their usual cunning and sagacity, was that some of them at least did not circle the horses and get to the leeward. But they were in such a wild country, so far back in the remote fastnesses of the Rockies, that they had probably never encountered hunters or horses before and had not acquired all the cunning of their more hunted and haunted brothers. After their temporary scare they returned, step by step, to their investigation, and the largest bull in the bunch approached the very log behind which I sat. He was just in the act of stepping over it when he caught a whiff of my breath and, with a terrific snort, vaulted backward and sidewise certainly thirty feet. At the same instant I rose up and shouted, and the whole band went tearing down the mountain side making a racket like that of an avalanche.
As before stated, I could have had my choice out of the herd, but my only pack-horse was loaded so that I could have carried but a small piece of meat, and was unwilling to waste so grand a creature for the little I could save from him.
The antlers of the bull elk grow to a great size. He sheds them in February of each year. The new horn begins to grow in April. During the summer it is soft and pulpy and is covered with a fine velvety growth of hair; it matures and hardens in August; early in September he rubs this velvet off and is then ready to try conclusions with any rival that comes in his way. The rutting season over, he has no further use for his antlers until the next autumn, and they drop off. Thus the process is repeated, year after year, as regularly as the leaves grow and fall from the trees. But it seems a strange provision of nature that should load an animal with sixty to seventy-five pounds of horns, for half the year, when weapons of one-quarter the size and weight would be equally effective if all were armed alike.
I have in my collection the head of a bull elk, killed in the Shoshone Mountains, in Northern Wyoming, the antlers of which measure as follows:
Length of main beam, 4⅔ feet; length of brow tine, 18½ inches; length of bes tine, 20½ inches; length of royal tine, 19 inches; length of surroyal, 20½ inches: circumference around burr, 15¼ inches; circumference around beam above burr, 12 inches; circumference of brow tine at base, 7½ inches; spread of main beams at tips, 4¾ inches. They are one of the largest and finest pairs of antlers of which I have any knowledge. The animal when killed would have weighed nearly a thousand pounds.
The elk is strictly gregarious, and in winter time, especially, the animals gather into large bands, and a few years ago herds of from five hundred to a thousand were not uncommon. Now, however, their numbers have been so far reduced by the ravages of “skin hunters” and others that one will rarely find more than twenty-five or thirty in a band.
In the fall of 1879, a party of three men were sight-seeing and hunting in the Yellowstone National Park, and having prolonged their stay until late in October, were overtaken by a terrible snowstorm, which completely blockaded and obliterated all the trails, and filled the gulches, cañons, and coulees to such a depth that their horses could not travel over them at all. They had lain in camp three days waiting for the storm to abate; but as it continued to grow in severity, and as the snow became deeper and deeper, their situation grew daily and hourly more alarming. Their stock of provisions was low, they had no shelter sufficient to withstand the rigors of a winter at that high altitude, and it was fast becoming a question whether they should ever be able to escape beyond the snow-clad peaks and snow-filled cañons with which they were hemmed in. Their only hope of escape was by abandoning their horses, and constructing snow-shoes which might keep them above the snow; but in this case they could not carry bedding and food enough to last them throughout the several days that the journey would occupy to the nearest ranch, and the chances of killing game en route after the severe weather had set in were extremely precarious. They had already set about making snow-shoes from the skin of an elk which they had saved. One pair had been completed, and the storm having abated, one of the party set out to look over the surrounding country for the most feasible route by which to get out, and also to try if possible to find game of some kind.
He had gone about a mile toward the northeast when he came upon the fresh trail of a large band of elk that were moving toward the east. He followed, and in a short time came up with them. They were traveling in single file, led by a powerful old bull, who wallowed through snow in which only his head and neck were visible, with all the patience and perseverance of a faithful old ox. The others followed him—the stronger ones in front and the weaker ones bringing up the rear. There were thirty-seven in the band, and by the time they had all walked in the same line they left it an open, well-beaten trail. The hunter approached within a few yards of them. They were greatly alarmed when they saw him, and made a few bounds in various directions; but seeing their struggles were in vain, they meekly submitted to what seemed their impending fate, and fell back in rear of their file-leader. This would have been the golden opportunity of a skin hunter, who could and would have shot them all down in their tracks from a single stand. But such was not the mission of our friend. He saw in this noble, struggling band a means of deliverance from what had threatened to be a wintry grave for him and his companions. He did not fire a shot, and did not in any way create unnecessary alarm amongst the elk, but hurried back to camp and reported to his friends what he had seen.
In a moment the camp was a scene of activity and excitement. Tent, bedding, provisions, everything that was absolutely necessary to their journey, were hurriedly packed upon their pack animals; saddles were placed, rifles were slung to the saddles, and leaving all surplus baggage, such as trophies of their hunt, mineral specimens and curios of various kinds, for future comers, they started for the elk trail. They had a slow, tedious, and laborious task, breaking a way through the deep snow to reach it, but by walking and leading their saddle animals ahead, the pack animals were able to follow slowly. Finally they reached the trail of the elk herd, and following this, after nine days of tedious and painful traveling, the party arrived at a ranch on the Stinking Water river, which was kept by a “squaw man” and his wife, where they were enabled to lodge and recruit themselves and their stock, and whence they finally reached their homes in safety. The band of elk passed on down the river, and our tourists never saw them again; but they have doubtless long ere this all fallen a prey to the ruthless war that is constantly being waged against them by hunters white and red.
It is sad to think that such a noble creature as the American elk is doomed to early and absolute extinction, but such is nevertheless the fact. Year by year his mountain habitat is being surrounded and encroached upon by the advancing line of settlements, as the fisherman encircles the struggling mass of fishes in the clear pond with his long and closely-meshed net. The lines are drawn closer and closer each year. These lines are the ranches of cattle and sheep raisers, the cabins and towns of miners, the stations and residences of employés of the railroads. All these places are made the shelters and temporary abiding places of Eastern and foreign sportsmen who go out to the mountains to hunt. Worse than this, they are made the permanent abiding places, and constitute the active and convenient markets of the nefarious and unconscionable skin hunter and meat hunter. Here he can find a ready market for the meats and skins he brings in, and an opportunity to spend the proceeds of such outrageous traffic in ranch whisky and revelry. The ranchmen themselves hunt and lay in their stock of meat for the year when the game comes down into the valleys. The Indians, when they have eaten up their Government rations, lie in wait for the elk in the same manner. So that when the first great snows of the autumn or winter fall in the high ranges, when the elk band together and seek refuge in the valleys, as did the herd that our fortunate tourists followed out, they find a mixed and hungry horde waiting for them at the mouth of every cañon. Before they have reached the valley where the snow-fall is light enough to allow them to live through the winter their skins are drying in the neighboring “shacks.”
This unequal, one-sided warfare, this ruthless slaughter of inoffensive creatures, can not last always. Indeed, it can last but little longer. In ranges where only a few years ago herds of four or five hundred elk could be found, the hunter of to-day considers himself in rare luck when he finds a band of ten or twelve, and even small bands of any number are so rare that a good hunter may often hunt a week in the best elk country to be found anywhere without getting a single shot. All the Territories have good, wholesome game-laws which forbid the killing of game animals except during two or three months in the fall; but these laws are not enforced. They are a dead letter on the statute-books, and the illegal and illegitimate slaughter goes on unchecked.
“The wilderness is not a renewable resource. If it is possible for humans and wildlife to coexist, we must endeavor to understand as much as possible about their needs to minimize negative impacts.” ~Anonymous
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
* George O Shields, Cruisings in the Cascades / A Narrative of Travel, Exploration, Amateur Photography, / Hunting, and Fishing (Chicago, New York: Rand, McNally, 1889), Chapter 22. Photos, quotes added.