Technical Report

A History of Native Elk in Mount Rainier National Park
Paul Schullery


I researched and wrote this report as a contract researcher for the National Park Service in 1983. Distribution by the National Park Service was limited to a few administrative and file copies, as far as I know. My project was part of a much larger research initiative then underway in Mount Rainier, to investigate several aspects of elk ecology and distribution in the park. It was a special treat to be associated with this fine team of specialists.

This report was the largest study I had yet undertaken in the fields we now know as environmental history and ecological history. For the most part I am still satisfied with it. At the very least, it is a reasonably thorough compendium of the relevant sources of wildlife information from an all-too-remote and poorly documented period in the history of an important national park. At best, it still seems to me to address most of the basic issues, both historical and historiographical, that must be faced in such a quixotic inquiry as recreating an ecological setting from fragmentary written records of often dubious reliability. Besides, it was a lot of fun, and I think the stories it tells still are.

I will offer a thought or two, however, based on my experiences with ecological history research since 1984. The question of what influenced the numbers and distribution of native elk of the Mount Rainier region prior to the creation of the park has often come to mind, and I have many times thought about how I dealt with that question in this report. I am most surprised that neither I nor any of the others who studied the early history of elk in Mount Rainier seem to have given much consideration to the possible influences of introduced European diseases–both human and livestock–on the region's biological community in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I was well aware of the catastrophic impact various European epidemics had on native people throughout the New World, and (as my discussion of bighorn sheep population declines in Appendix IV suggests) I was also aware of the potential effects of imported domestic livestock diseases. The lapse in my analysis is thus mystifying to me, but there it is. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, epidemics repeatedly swept through many parts of western North America. Human populations were in many locations substantially reduced, then hit again and again by subsequent waves of any of several lethal diseases. Native political and cultural institutions sometimes collapsed or were restructured.

The effects of this relentless series of disasters (which have been justifiably called the "American Holocaust") on the ecological setting were potentially profound. Among many other things, they could have included dramatic changes in the abundance of certain wildlife species that had been released from some or all human hunting pressure. Given the limited state of our knowledge of human civilizations in this region prior to white settlement, our chances of sorting out just how this complex situation played itself out are fairly slim. But at least we can recognize that exotic diseases are very likely another complicating factor in our attempts to determine how elk fit in the historic ecological scene. I hope that some other student of Mount Rainier's history might consider the question, and I also hope that the information in the present report will serve such a study well.

On a less satisfying note, I am amused to see that at certain points in the text I seem to subscribe to a view of ecological systems as tending toward some ideal or inevitable "balance," a notion I have since learned to distrust if not generally discard.

I should also note later publications that resulted from this study. I informally recounted this research project in a popular article, "Sketches from Nature: Lumping the Elk," Country Journal, 1988, 15(2):68-70. This then appeared as a chapter in my book, Pregnant Bears and Crawdad Eyes: Excursions and Encounters in Animal Worlds (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1991). My extensive review of early accounts of the Mount Rainier area enabled me to collect many of the most interesting such accounts into a book, Island in the Sky: Pioneering Accounts of Mount Rainier (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1987). The information and experience I gained by conducting this research was of use to me in a number of other projects, but especially in a more recent book, Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies: Legend and Legacy in the American West (Guilford, Connecticut: Falcon Press/Globe Pequot, 2002).

Thanks to Harry Butowsky, energetic manager of the NPS history website, for his pursuit of so many documents and books that would otherwise never have a chance at such a large and enthusiastic audience as he has attracted.

Last, thanks to Jean McCreight, of Bozeman, Montana, for typing the text of this report into a computer so that it could be placed on the NPS history website.

What follows this preface is, as far as I know, the exact text of the original 1984 report.

Paul Schullery
Yellowstone Center for Resources
Yellowstone Park, Wyoming
October, 2004

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Last Updated: Monday, 18-Oct-2004 20:10:54
Author: Natural & Cultural Resources Division

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