Technical Report

Elk Ecology and Management Perspectives at Mount Rainier National Park
William P, Bradley, Chas. H. Driver


The native elk of the western slopes of the Cascades and Western Washington was the Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti). There is little evidence to demonstrate that this native elk ever existed within park boundaries in large numbers. Furthermore, we believe that the native Roosevelt elk never utilized the high sub-alpine zones of the Cascades as summer range and probably were not found in the upper headwaters of the White and Cowlitz River systems. The historical presence of Roosevelt elk has been firmly established along the western boundary of the park in the Puyallup, Mashell, and Nisqually River drainages; but even here it is very doubtful that they utilized habitats within the park above 3,000 feet in elevation. To examine this hypothesis, we offer the following lines of thought.

Archeological Evidence

If elk populations had existed within the boundaries of Mount Rainier National Park or the near vicinity, their remains would have been uncovered in archeological excavations of Indian encampments. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of information regarding ecological interrelationships of early inhabitants of the area with their environment (Smith 1964; Jermann and Mason 1976). Cascade Mountain and inland Washington environments have been neglected by archeologists in favor of the plethora of rich sites in the plateau and coastal regions of the state. The only archeological dig within the boundaries of the park was a high sub-alpine site at Frying Pan Rock-shelter in the northeast quadrant of the park (Rice 1965). This excavation indicated a temporary summer hunting camp that had been in occupation almost continuously for between 300 to 1,000 years. All bones Identified were those of deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and no elk remains were found.

Ethnographic Record

Smith (1964) and Jermann and Mason (1976) provide excellent reviews of the native Indian utilization of environments in and around Mount Rainier National Park. All of these tribes utilized elk as a food source. However, references to elk and elk hunting are limited to the foothill areas of the Cascades. Indian expeditions into the Mount Rainier area were largely for the purpose of berry picking or the hunting of mountain goats and deer. The feeling that elk were hunted by early Indian tribes in Mount Rainier National Park seems to emanate from the unsubstantiated writings of Schmoe (1924, 1925, 1926) and Winthrop (1913). Schmoe recorded his statements in the Mt. Rainier Nature News, a non-technical public information document produced by the park staff. Winthrop's writings concerned the ancient Indian legend of Hamitchou, which he first heard from an elderly Indian in 1852. This legend concerns the mystical experiences of an Indian elk hunter on the flanks of the mountain then referred to as Tahoma. We feel that none of these sources can be substantiated or accurate and regret that they have been incorporated in the literature as factual. It is Interesting that Smith's (1964) informants also noted that the native elk of the lowland areas were different from the present introduced variety.

Early Historical Evidence

Early written historical records of the Mount Rainier area also support our contention that the Roosevelt elk did not historically inhabit the park. In 1841, Lt. Robert Johnson, a member of the Wilkes expedition, traversed the White River Valley on the northern boundary of the park and crossed Naches Pass into eastern Washington (Meany 1916). Throughout the entire trip, Johnson only saw one deer at the junction of the Carbon and White Rivers (which he shot) and his comments on the near impassability of the dense vegetation in the White River Valley reflect the area's heavy stand of timber. Johnson's feelings on the denseness of the forest vegetation in the White River Valley were echoed by Winthrop (1913) when he traversed the same route in 1853. Winthrop was only able to shoot one grouse for food during his trip and his horse almost starved for lack of palatable forage.

The Upper Cowlitz River Valley was first visited by white men in 1854, when James Longmire and William Packwood were guided into the area by an Indian (Tompkins 1933). No mention of elk was made on this trip, or of elk in the general area south of Mount Rainier in the later published narratives of James Longmire, although he did state he was daily supplied with wild deer meat from an Indian hunter (Palmer 1932). In 1859, a hunting trip to the eastern flanks of Mount Rainier was undertaken by two unknown white men and their Indian guides (McWhorter 1917). Deer and mountain goat were plentiful but elk were not observed. P.J. Flint took a party of Yakima hunters over the Cowlitz Pass, down the Summit Creek drainage to the Ohanapecosh River, and then up the Cowlitz Divide ridge in 1881 (McIntyre 1952). This party saw no game throughout the entire trip. In 1886, a party of Yakima Indians and one white man hunted the eastern slopes of Mount Rainier (Brown 1920). They found no game and were forced to hunt the south side of the mountain, In the vicinity of Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, for mountain goats.

Further evidence of the lack of elk in the immediate area can be seen through the settlement patterns of the Upper Cowlitz River Basin. This region was settled by transplanted Appalachian mountaineers and, between 1882 and 1925, was referred to as Little Kentucky (Clevenger 1938). The Appalachians were excellent hunters, and the freedom to hunt and support themselves with wild meat was one of the main reasons for their settling in this area. The main game animals were deer, bear and cougar; elk were not mentioned.

Large group outings by the Mazama Club in 1897 (McIntyre 1952) and the Sierra Club in 1905 (Sampson 1908; Randall 1908) also failed to provide evidence of any elk in the Mount Rainier high country or surrounding environments. Both of these parties reported deer and mountain goats as the only large game animals observed.

Ecological Evidence

Perhaps the most convincing argument lies in the habitat requirements of elk. If one envisions the historical vegetation from the crest of the Cascades to the foothill area of the Puget Sound trough, the picture presented is an endless blanket of conifer vegetation, much like the present conifer habitats in the lower elevations of Mount Rainier that have not recently been disturbed by fire. The relatively homogenous conifer overstory lacked the diversity of habitats necessary to continually support a large ungulate such as the elk. These forest conditions in west slope Cascade habitats have remained relatively intact for nearly 2,500 years (Heusser 1960) and this contention is supported by paleoecological pollen analysis (Hansen 1947). While some slopes have been occasionally and temporarily disturbed by forest fires, the only areas capable of continually maintaining the habitat diversity necessary for moderate to dense elk populations would have been the riparian corridors and their associated flood plains. We feel confident that limited amounts of such habitats did exist around the periphery of Mount Rainier and that there were probably small pockets of Roosevelt elk present in these habitats.

These populations may have temporarily expanded in burned areas, but the natural fire rotation exceeding 450 years (Hemstrom 1979) suggests that enhanced elk habitat occurred only during a small proportion of the forest successional cycle. As an example, there was only one small clearing, a five-acre sedge meadow, in the entire Upper Cowlitz River Valley when the first settlers arrived (Clevenger 1938). We feel that the structure of habitats surrounding Mount Rainier were not conducive to the establishment of moderate populations of Roosevelt elk and, due to its generally higher altitude, we doubt that any such populations existed on a permanent basis in the park.

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Last Updated: Monday, 01-Dec-2003 20:10:54
Author: Natural & Cultural Resources Division

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