Technical Report

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


Mount Rainier National Park was established in 1899 to preserve the scenic beauty and geological values of one of this continent's premier volcanic peaks. A second important value perceived by early proponents of the park was the spectacular beauty of the subalpine meadows that encircle the peak; John Muir called them the "lower gardens of Eden" (Muir 1888).

Even before the establishment of the park local residents expressed concern about excessive killing of game in the area; once the park was established protection of wildlife became a pressing concern of administrators. Elk have often been foremost among those concerns.

Few records of elk in or near the park in the early 1900s have been uncovered. Following a series of introductions of elk from the Rocky Mountains starting in 1912 near the present park, administrators perceived a gradual increase in elk numbers and occasionally expressed alarm that the park was being invaded by "exotic" elk. In 1962 a wildlife census flight over the east boundary of the park revealed hitherto unacknowledged numbers of elk, and since that time park administrators have been greatly concerned about the heavy use of the park, particularly (in recent years) the subalpine meadows for which the park is so famous.

Though extensive research into the movements and other activities of these elk has been conducted in recent years, basic underlying questions have remained.

One has been the uncertainty expressed in many quarters about the exact classification of the elk in the park. Though it is widely agreed that present elk numbers are predominantly the result of the transplants that have occurred since 1912, there is considerable confusion over the distinction being made between native elk, traditionally classified as Roosevelt wapiti (Cervus elaphus roosevelti), and introduced elk from the Rocky Mountains (Cervus elaphus nelsoni). Current studies, the results of which will be available soon, are questioning the traditional distinction between the two animals. As is summarized by Dunnagan (1983), "analysis of skull morphology and of protein electrophoresis (a blood and tissue analysis) suggest that they are not different subspecies."

There is, incidentally, more than a little irony in the prospect of the two animals being reclassified as one. C. Hart Merriam (1897) named the Pacific Coast elk for Theodore Roosevelt, in honor of the latter's many contributions to our knowledge of the hunting and natural history of American game. Roosevelt, however, carried on a cordial debate with Merriam for many years, and was as avid a "lumper" as Merriam was a "splitter." Upon reading of some new grouping of wild animals, Roosevelt once remarked "I have certain instincts which are jarred when an old familiar friend is suddenly cut up into eleven brand new acquaintances" (Roosevelt 1983).

A second uncertainty has involved the historical status of elk in Mount Rainier National Park. As this paper will report, many writers have maintained that the native elk did not use the park area, and many others have maintained that they did. The primary purpose of this report is to evaluate the evidence and make some judgment on the question of whether or not elk were native to the area currently in Mount Rainier National Park.

The foremost responsibility of managers to the natural resource of a national park is to maintain it in as near pristine a condition as is compatible with other park purposes, especially human use and enjoyment of that resource (Houston 1971; Leopold, et al. 1963). The presence of any exotic life form in a park is cause for concern, and becomes particularly so when that life form shows signs of threatening native life forms or causes management conflicts with neighboring agencies. Recent studies of elk in Mount Rainier (Bradley and Driver 1981; Bradley 1982) have explored the management options available to managers in Mount Rainier based on those researchers' conviction that elk were not "part of the resident fauna at the turn of the century." Management of the elk as an unavoidable exotic can differ in some important respects from managing those same animals as natives, of course; as part of the current studies of the elk the Park Service has included a thorough review of the historical evidence to establish, as well as possible, the presence or absence of elk among the pristine native fauna of Mount Rainier.

The following report is primarily the result of a literature search of both published and unpublished materials. The bibliography will suggest the breadth of the search. Routine searches of scholarly journals of obvious regional concentration (such as the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Washington Historical Quarterly, and The Pacific Northwesterner) and of more popular magazines of that time and since (such as the Sierra Club Bulletin, Mountaineer, Mazama, The Coast, Out West, and the Northwest Illustrated Monthly Magazine) were supplemented by surveys of key mid- and late-nineteenth century sporting periodicals of national interest (American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine and Forest & Stream). Of particular use in tracking down early accounts of the park and nearby areas were several detailed bibliographies: National Park Service, Western Museum Laboratories, A Bibliography of National Parks and Monuments West of the Mississippi River (U.S. National Park Service, 1941); National Park Service, Branch of Interpretation, Bibliography of Mount Rainier National Park (National Park Service/Public Libraries of Seattle and Tacoma, 1937); and the bibliographies compiled by Haines (1962), Smith (1964), and Thompson (1981). In addition to periodicals, a thorough search of books relating to the park was made, including especially travel accounts of the years before 1915; many of these are listed in the bibliographies, and many others proved unfruitful.

The extent of use of archival materials and newspaper files is more difficult to express because so little of what is examined is finally used. The earliest territorial newspapers were checked for material on the mountain or on elk activity or hunting, as of course were many later papers as referenced by previous authors. Again, the bibliography is illustrative of the types of materials covered.

The field notes of early survey parties were of especial value, being our most accurate link with the status of park fauna as early as 1897. The most useful of these notes were located–by long distance–at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and are listed in the bibliography. Extensive searches of other archival materials, such as the administrative archives of the park and the really rich McWhorter collection at Pullman, were occasionally fruitful.

Where questions arose a number of knowledgeable people were consulted, many of whom are thanked and listed in the acknowledgments.

In several cases lines of communication have been established with researchers in related fields who may come up with information relevant to the subject of this report at some time in the future. If that happens I will of course notify the park.

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

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