Technical Report

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


Early Concerns

With the establishment of the park in 1899, much concern was voiced in early park records for the extirpation of local wildlife by unregulated sport hunting. The general feeling in regard to elk at this time was that they probably represented part of the original park fauna, but had been eliminated some time ago with the encroachment of civilization into the area.

With the introduction of the Yellowstone elk populations around the periphery of the park, further concern surfaced over this species invading park habitats and replacing the supposedly native Roosevelt elk. It is interesting to note that in 1934 members of the park staff met with the recently appointed State Commissioner of Game and Fish, Mr. Roy James, to discuss this problem. The state agreed that these introduced elk should be eliminated and replaced with the native species, and expressed a strong willingness to assist in every possible way to accomplish this end.

Later in this same year, the National Park Service made a decision about the fate of the introduced elk in Mount Rainier. They felt it would be impossible to totally eliminate the Rocky Mountain elk from Mount Rainier and that their best hope for maintaining a stable gene pool of Roosevelt elk was to concentrate on the Olympic Peninsula. The NPS felt that the Puget Sound trough provided a fairly effective barrier against further mixing of any Yellowstone and Roosevelt elk and that no further attempts to introduce Roosevelt elk into Mount Rainier should be attempted (Thompson 1934).

For the next 28 years, little was done in the form of policy or decision making regarding the introduced elk populations in Mount Rainier National Park, even though these populations kept increasing. By the late 1950s, it was not uncommon to see large groups of elk in the Shriner Peak vicinity and in the Nickle Creek drainage. During this period, elk observations in the north side of the park also started to increase. It is important to note that at this time there still had been no quantifiable studies made to ascertain the effects of elk utilizing the park.

The park's attitude toward its elk population was abruptly changed during the summer of 1962. John Larson, a biologist for the US Forest Service, conducted an aerial elk census along the Cascade Crest encompassing the park's eastern boundary. He counted a total of 466 elk, with over 300 of them observed in the general vicinity of the Shriner Peak complex. No one had previously imagined that this many elk were utilizing the high sub-alpine environments of the park, and it generated attention toward the impact of this large introduced ungulate on the sub-alpine meadows.

Beginning of Current Management Activities

In response to the data generated by the Larson flight, Park Superintendent John Rutter officially declared the elk situation in Mount Rainier to be a problem worthy of NPS concern. He designed an in-house task force to review the elk situation and produce a report and recommendations. Several reports surfaced during the next eight years, but all of them underscored the lack of any quantifiable information on which to base a management decision. The general feeling of park personnel was that elk inhabited Mount Rainier only during the summer months and migrated to lower winter ranges outside the park boundaries during the winter. This fact limited the amount of direct control the Park Service had over the situation and brought other land management agencies into the picture.

To address both the seasonal movements of the elk herd and the need for increased communication with other land management agencies, the Park Service formed the Mount Rainier Deer and Elk Management Coordinating Committee in 1968. This committee was composed of individuals from the US Forest Service (including personnel from three different National Forests), the Washington State Game Department, the National Park Service, and designated representatives from the Washington State Sportsmen's Council and from Weyerhaeuser Company. After several years of observations and cooperative discussions by all parties, it was agreed that more detailed information was needed on the use of elk within the National Park boundary. Because it the other cooperating agencies did not agree completely with the Park Service's contention that elk were adversely affecting the native vegetation, nor with the idea that the elk were seasonal migrators in and out of the park boundaries, it was necessary to research the following questions:

  1. What was the total population of elk in the park and what were the characteristics of this herd;

  2. Was the population a resident herd, staying within the park boundaries or did it, indeed, migrate outside the park during the winter;

  3. What were the characteristics of elk use and their impact on sub-alpine environments; and,

  4. What areas of the park were most intensively utilized.

As a result of these actions by the Mount Rainier Deer and Elk Management Coordinating Committee, the NPS moved to initiate the development of a research program to look into these areas of needed information. in 1969, NPS research biologist Max Holden initiated an elk marking program for the purpose of delineating patterns of elk movement and migration. Holden was transferred, however, and the in-house research efforts were extremely limited by available personnel.

National Park Service officials also felt that the data should be generated by an outside agency and therefore eliminate any possibility of internal bias in the results. In response to this need, an elk research program, supported by the NPS, was established at the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington. Field activities were initiated in March, 1973 and continued actively through the summer of 1977.

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

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