A History of Native Elk in Mount Rainier National Park
CHAPTER ONE: ELK NEAR MOUNT RAINIER BEFORE ITS EXPLORATION
The presence of elk in or near the central Cascades of Washington prior to the arrival of white men has been suggested by several writers, most giving only the vaguest of explanations and not attempting to establish numbers or habits. Larsen's remarks concern the Yakima Valley:
Larsen's report is apparently based on Mitchell and Lauckhart (1948), as follows:
We will turn to the suggested disappearance of the elk "before the arrival of the first white settlers" later in this report.
Other modern writers have discussed the range of the elk in the Cascades. Murie (1951) believed that elk did not originally inhabit the Columbia Basin but occupied the Cascades. Graf (1955) quoted Washington State biologist Burton Lauckhart as saying in 1943 that elk originally occupied the Cascades; Lauckhart was apparently uncertain about the exact extent of that occupation, and was in any case more concerned with the population status in 1943. Dalquest (1948) also maintained that elk were present, apparently in good numbers, in the Cascades. Taylor and Shaw (1927) maintained that "the Roosevelt elk is probably the species which formerly occurred throughout the Cascade Mountains."
These and other authors established in the literature the conviction that elk were indeed native to the Cascades, but did so with caution and uncertainty about numbers and range. It is with an equal degree of uncertainty that we must approach an investigation of elk presence in any one area of the Cascades, such as the region near Mount Rainier.
Prehistoric levels of elk must have varied, as do modern levels of wildlife, depending on the hospitality of the habitat. Variations in climate, occurring gradually or abruptly, would naturally affect levels of wildlife populations. Therefore it is probably impossible to establish, even if information were available for the last 12,000 years, any single "natural level" of elk use.
Because of hospitable conditions the presence of elk in prehistoric times west of the Cascades is assumed by most authors. However, Gustafson (1972) has argued as well for a similarly common presence of elk in the Columbia Basin east of the Cascades:
Daubenmire (1970) has suggested that the numbers of grazing ungulates in eastern Washington have gradually declined for at least 2,000 years:
Similar climatic conditions may have applied generally to the Columbia Basin, including the lowlands immediately to the east of the Cascade crest near Mount Rainier. Reports of the first white surveyors and explorers in the area seemed to support this, and will be examined later.
Paradoxically, determining the presence of elk in and around Mount Rainier in the last few centuries is sometimes more difficult than establishing earlier presence. Archeological investigations can be confounded in studying the recent past because such recent sites are often obscured by latereven presentuses and are furthermore within the range of plows and similar equipment. Thus, our knowledge of elk presence in the Mount Rainier area since, say 1500, is primarily based on anthropological evidence.
Very little archeological work has been done in Mount Rainier National Park itself, by no means enough to establish anything affirmative or negative about elk presence there. This may be partly because many archeologists have been attracted to richer coastal sites, but it also could be "in part attributed to the difficult terrain and almost impenetrable vegetation." (Lewarch, Reynolds, and Jermann 1975) of much of the region. The tentative examination of the Fryingpan Rockshelter by Rice (1965) mentioned only deer bones, which have since been reexamined and reclassified as bighorn sheep bones (Gustafson pers. comm.). Much more work at all elevations is necessary in order to establish even general patterns of human use and elk exploitation by humans in the present park area in ancient times.
A brief overview of known human-elk interactions involving native American groups near Mount Rainier is useful for understanding levels of elk presence. The present discussion will be limited primarily to the period before whites first explored Mount Rainier.
Elk were not a primary food source for tribes in the Mount Rainier area; fish most often assumed primary importance, often supplemented by sea mammals among Puget Sound tribes (Thomas and Toweill 1982). Haeberlin and Gunther have summarized the variations in food habits among Puget Sound tribes:
We can assume from this a certain trade in elk meat, which probably increased the actual harvest of elk beyond the needs of those tribes whose lands supported elk in good numbers. The demands of this trade may have thus kept elk numbers lower than would seem necessary to meet the needs of tribes most known for hunting.
Only a few tribes or tribal groups are of immediate concern to a discussion of the Mount Rainier area. Terms like "boundary" and "territory" are used guardedly in the following generalizations and recognized for their limitations; individuals and groups often intermingled, and the edges of a tribe's perceived "territory" may have been more a matter of geographical necessity than formal decision.
To the east of Mount Rainier were the Yakima and Kittitas, who used the Yakima valley and probably considered the Cascades the western limit of their domain, though they crossed the crest frequently to hunt and trade. The Nisqually, who occupied the land to the south of the Nisqually River from the Sound to the present park area, also seemed to have considered the crest their boundary in the Cascades (Smith 1940). And, like the Yakima, they frequently crossed it. The Puyallup were most properly the "proprietors" of Mount Rainier; at least the bulk of the mountain itself occurred within the borders of Puyallup territory (Smith 1940). Their north border in the vicinity of the mountain was the White River, and their south border was the Nisqually (Haeberlin and Gunther 1930). Like the Nisqually, the Puyallup had the crest of the Cascades for an eastern border (Smith 1941).
These three tribal groupsthe Yakima/Kittitas, the Nisqually, and the Puyallupoccupied land that now comprises the entire Mount Rainier National Park. Other tribes nearbythe Muckleshoot and Snoqualmie to the north and the Cowlitz and Klickitat to the southwere also close enough to use the park and any elk that may have existed in it.
The label "Yakima" was imposed by anthropologists on a "nameless but identifiable group" of people in the Yakima Valley east of the present park who did not perceive themselves to be a single political unit. Ethnohistorian Morris Uebelocker has summed up the historical attachment of the Yakima groups to elk by saying that these groups "see elk as something that's been there forever" (Uebelocker, pers. comm.). Studies currently underway by Uebelocker should provide much more detailed information on elk presence and use in the Yakima Valley, but use of elk by Yakima groups was noted as early as Lewis and Clark (Thwaites 1969). According to Lyman (1919), they hunted elk regularly, not only on the plains but in the Cascades. McWhorter (1923) recorded at least three customs relating to elk, particularly to the handling of freshly killed elk; these customs were apparently of long standing, in effect prior to the first introductions of elk from the Rocky Mountains. Warren (1968) documented a probable antler wedge and other elk materials from the Wenas Creek site east of the Naches River.
Yakima and Kittitas traded regularly with tribes west of the Cascade crest (Lewarch, Reynolds, and Jermann 1975; Prater 1981), crossing both north and south of the present park. It could be that some of the elk artifacts and recorded elk uses were the result of that trade rather than the result of native elk in residence east of the crest, but considering the widespread acceptance of prehistoric elk presence by Yakima tradition we should assume that the Yakima Valley did contain some elk and that the Yakima groups were accustomed to using them.
These two tribes shared many of the same habits regarding elk. They used clubs made of elk horn, split cedar planks with elk horn wedges, wrapped bodies in elk and deer hide for burial, made "parfleches" of untanned elk skin for use as containers, and of course ate elk (Haeberlin and Gunther 1930). Their hunting methods were described by Smith (1940);
Hunt (1916) elaborated on another form of hunting known to be practiced by the Nisqually:
In 1833 Dr. William Fraser Tolmie encountered three "Tekatat" (probably Klickitat) families a dozen or so miles northeast of Fort Nisqually, in the heart of Nisqually-Puyallup country. He recorded in his journal that "their sheds were made of bark resting upon a horizontal pole supported at each end by tripods & showed an abundance of elk's flesh, dried, within. Two kettles were filled with this & after smoking my indians made a savage repast on the meat and bouillon..." (Tolmie 1833)
Other Tribal Groups
The other tribes near the present parkthe Snoqualmie, Muckleshoot, Cowlitz, and Klickitatwere all known to use elk. Of these, as mentioned earlier in the quotation from Haeberlin and Gunther (1930), the Snoqualmie were considered the "best hunters of the Puget Sound Tribes." The Cowlitz were reported by Curtis (1913) to be efficient elk hunters, especially in winter. Jermann and Mason (1976) reviewed references to Cowlitz hunting activities, pointing out that Cowlitz used elk hides for garments and shields. Furthermore, Cowlitz groups traded meat of elk as well as consuming it. According to Smith (1964) both Muckleshoot and Klickitat were good hunters and presumably used elk when available. We have already noted Tolmie's reference to Klickitat eating elk meat near Fort Nisqually, and the famous guide Indian Henry, after whom Indian Henry's Hunting Ground was named, was variously reported as having been a Klickitat, Cowlitz, or a Nisqually.
From this brief survey of archeological and anthropological sources, we can assume that elk were present in that portion of the Cascade Range near Mount Rainier as well as in the lower country both east and west of the park. We cannot safely generalize about either their numbers or their distribution, but it would seem logical to assume, based on this known presence of elk in the vicinity of the mountain, that at least some elk were using appropriate habitats within the present boundaries of Mount Rainier National Park.
The likelihood of prehistoric elk use of the Mount Rainier area would appear to be buttressed by developments in the twentieth century. When, after 1900, native elk were regarded as almost gone from the Cascades, elk from the Rocky Mountains were repeatedly introduced near the park. These animals very quickly began to show up within the park; their ability to use the park in great numbers today is, of course, the cause of the present management dilemma. But long before the changing land use practices that Bradley and Driver (1981) have described, and which have been blamed for the great increase in elk numbers in the park since the 1950s, some elk were using the park regularly.
Though it will be up to ecologists and managers to settle the issue of whether or not the transplanted elk use the park as the native elk would have, a few observations are in order based on the historical record. The record is revealing in at least two specific issues, elk migration and available winter range.
It has been suggested that native elk did not have the same "migratory habit" that the introduced elk have displayed, and that for this reason the introduced elk may be using the park differently, or more intensively, than native elk would have (National Park Service 1977). Both modern and historical evidence seem to contradict this thesis. Consider, for example, the elk of Yellowstone Park, which were used for many of the transplants and which have long been famous for their extended migrations. Though many elk in the northern Yellowstone herd do indeed make lengthy seasonal migrations, some herd members remain on the high summer range all year (Houston 1982). Others are year-round residents on low elevation "winter" ranges. Moreover, the Madison herd, having their needs satisfied in the upper Madison drainage of Yellowstone Park, are formally described as "nonmigratory" and move very little during the year (Craighead et al. 1973). As well, Houston (pers. comm.) reports that some native elk in the Olympic Mountains of Washington travel considerable distances seasonally. In these cases the tendency to migrate seems to be a function of need rather than simply an inherent drive to move seasonally.
Murie (1951) suggested that before native elk were hunted heavily and denied unhindered access to traditional summer range in low country, such longer migrations may have been common. Murie cited comments by Suckley and Gibbs (1860) and Cooper (1860), to which I add Gibbs (1855):
These vague accounts do not of course establish anything precise about the migratory habits of native elk, but they do suggest that seasonal migrations of some length were fairly common among these elk before white influences began to limit their range more than natives may have.
In another regard, historical records of the distribution and abundance of elk range require reevaluation. An important issue in modern elk management in Mount Rainier National Park is the extent to which modern land practices have altered elk use of the park, specifically the possibility that extensive clearcutting of forests near the park boundary in the past thirty years have provided additional winter range, thus making summer use of the park possible for greater numbers of elk (Bradley and Driver 1981). The historical records on the levels of elk near the park, especially to the north and northeast, provide illuminating examples of the treachery of the available evidence.
Though historical accounts generally agree with Bradley and Driver (1981) that "the historical vegetation from the crest of the Cascades to the foothill area of the Puget Sound trough" was "an endless blanket of conifer vegetation," those same accounts are not conclusive about the presence or absence of wildlife. For example, Bradley and Driver (1981) cite Johnson (1850) and Winthrop (1913), both of whom reported the region along the northern boundary of the park to be practically barren of wildlife. Winthrop's account is perhaps the most illustrative of the strengths and weaknesses of these early records. It is worth a careful examination here and will be discussed in another context later.
Winthrop's Canoe and Saddle was apparently a very popular travel book in the 1860s, and was praised for the liveliness of the writing and the excitement of the experiences recounted. Winthrop traveled up the White River Valley in 1853 in company with a native guide, crossing Naches Pass and coming down Wenas Creek to the Yakima Valley. According to Bradley and Driver (1981), Winthrop "was only able to shoot one grouse for food during his trip and his horse almost starved for lack of palatable forage." This oversimplifies what Winthrop actually reported. For example near Naches Pass he and his guide visited an open area identified as the prairie of "Sowee, mighty hunter of deer and elk, terror of bears" (Winthrop 1862). Within two days after that Winthrop shot at a bear, further evidence that the country was not without large game.
The true test of Winthrop as evidence comes in reading his journals of this trip. The journals were published as an appendix to a later edition of his book, and they undermine not only his published description of the region he traveled but also his very reliability as an observer. I quote at length from this journal, which was the working material for the writing of the book. We join him Saturday, August 27, shortly after he left the road from Fort Nisqually. He left the fort on August 25.
Winthrop was a typically romantic adventure writer of the time, and in the case of his trip over the pass he evidently embellished the hardships considerably. In the course of this two day record of what was the roughest part of the trip (according to his book), he found prairies and grass on both days, and found water on both days as well. No doubt the forest was often quite dense, but he, like Johnson, traveled an established route used by the Indians and therefore perhaps less likely to show large game than other country nearby. Still, he did manage to kill four (not one) grouse. Worse, the stirring encounter he and his guide had with the bear (according to his book), seems not to have happened.
William Brackenridge, a botanist who accompanied Johnson across Naches Pass in 1841, also reported bears near the upper end of the White River Valley:
As we will see later, early accounts of the Mount Rainier area by explorers and surveyors unanimously agreed that game was scarce. Many of these other early accounts were more reliable than Winthrop, but none were based on careful surveys beyond hurried trips across great stretches of country. For that reason we should not be too quick to assume that elk were practically nonexistent. It is easy enough to travel through good game country without seeing game; it would be even easier to do so when traveling through mediocre game country.
The greater question of the amount of open country suitable for elk range north of the park was addressed by some of Winthrop's contemporaries. The exploring party sent out from Yelm in 1853 (to look over the route of the road from there up the White River to Greenwater and down to the Bumping River) were optimistic:
It is safe to assume that these local citizens were not without boosterism in their attitudes; they desperately wanted the road put through, as did everyone in Puget Sound. But they were not in a position, as some commercial interests may have been, to simply lie in order to paint the brightest picture possible, considering that their report was prepared for their hometown newspaper and that their friends and neighbors would prosper or suffer depending on its accuracy. And, as early Washington historian Edmond Meany pointed out, for all the complaints made by Winthrop and others about how difficult the pass was, the first group of pioneers "hacked out a wagon road over the pass in three weeks of the month of October" (Meany 1912).
Concerning the country to the north and west of the present park, Bagley (1982), reminiscing about 1856, remarked that "at that time the prairies in Thurston and Pierce Counties were much larger than now. The forests have since taken over more than half their area, as the soil is so poor that after a few years of use they become worthless as farms." No doubt most of the prairies Bagley was referring to were in or near the Puget Sound trough, as were the lands discussed by Tolmie in 1833 when he set out for Mount Rainier. Shortly after starting his trip, he traveled about eight miles north of Fort Nisqually (which would have put him near the shore of Puget Sound somewhere near the later site of Fort Steilacoom), from which he could look south and "see the broad plain extending southwards to Nusqually" (Tolmie 1833). According to Haines (1962) this area became more or less solid forest in later years, as "moderation of climate since that time has assisted in the forestation of the once relatively open Nisqually plain." Another reasonbesides climatefor the prairies being larger at that time is found in early reports that Puget Sound tribes burned forests either to chase elk into the open or to maintain open hunting grounds (Chittenden and Richardson 1904). The effects of this greater amount of open country in the Puget Sound trough on elk numbers can not be estimated at this point, but increased habitat in the lower country near the present park area would seem to lead to greater numbers of animals available to move into higher country in or near the park.
Early descriptions of available elk range and early estimates of animal abundance are difficult to interpret. Interpretation is made more difficult by variations that occur over time in any natural setting. But the early accounts are useful as cautionary guideposts when we attempt to generalize about ecological conditions on the basis of informal travel accounts. Winthrop and others of his time disagree on basic elements of the ecological story, yet they are our only firsthand evidence. Their general agreement in the matter of game being scarce may not be absolute proof that there was little game in the mountains, but it does lead to some intriguing conjectures on the causes of game scarcity, which is the subject we will turn to now.
The tribes of the Pacific Northwest were only lightly visited by whites before the 1830s. When, for commercial and scientific reasons, whites began assessing wildlife numbers in the area around Mount Rainier, they expressed surprise to find that these numbers were quite low. Moreover, they were inclined to attribute those low numbers to overhunting by tribes in the area. These early assessments seem also to imply that overhunting was a relatively recent phenomenon, though they did not elaborate on that implication or on its possible causes. Notable examples of these early assessments follow.
Johnson, who traveled across Naches Pass in 1841 as part of the Wilkes Expedition, described the Yakima groups as follows:
Brackenridge, who accompanied Johnson, also commented on the shortage of game, not imagining how productive the Yakima Valley could become under cultivation:
In 1844, Father M. Demers, writing generally on what he called "the Territory of the Columbia," was apparently discussing Washington and Vancouver when he said that "Wild animals have been more abundant than they are at present; elk, deer, caribou have become rare..." (Demers 1956).
Captain George B. McClellan of the Pacific Railroad Survey traveled up the Yakima Valley to Naches Pass in 1853. He and his group explored at least some of the tributaries of the Yakima and made a reasonable effort to examine the region. He reported his disappointment:
And, later in the same report:
This particular trip was made in late August and early September (Albright 1921), when the elk, if present in the area, might have been in higher country for the summer.
Gibbs, also a member of the survey, has been quoted previously on the conditions of wildlife. He observed that "deer and elk are almost exterminated throughout the country," and that the "Indians, with their usual improvidence, have slaughtered them without mercy." He seemed to be referring to the country of the Klickitat, who lived south and east of Mount Rainier. He elaborated on conditions in other areas in the same report, noting that "of game the Yakima country is as destitute as that of the Klickitatsso much so that ten deer-skins will purchase a horse" (Gibbs 1855). In another report evidently written about the same time but not published until 1877, Gibbs shifted his discussion to the tribes on the west side of the Cascades, of whom he said that "game furnishes to but few of them any considerable item... Elk and deer are hunted to a certain extent, chiefly by the bands nearest the mountains" (Gibbs 1877). In the same report he noted that their principal foods were "fish, roots, and berries."
J.G. Cooper, a naturalist on the Pacific Railroad Survey during the same period (1853-1855), was quoted earlier concerning elk migrations. He continued his remarks with a statement that seems to imply that elk were only recently reduced in numbers:
Taking these accounts at face value it would appear that for some reason, presumably not long before the writers arrived in the region, native tribes greatly reduced the numbers of elk and other wildlife. Larsen (n.d.) and Mitchell and Lauckhart (1948), mentioned earlier, espoused a similar viewpoint for elk in the Yakima Valley, where they believed the animals to have disappeared before the first whites arrived.
Were these early accounts based only on the personal observations of the writers they might have less credence than they do in this case because they were also based on perceived shortages of wildlife products among native groups.
None of the accounts appear to be directly based on information given the writers by the natives; no report quotes a native as saying that game was more common in the recent past. This leaves open the possibility that game had been uncommon for many years or for centuries. After all, we know that some tribes were dramatically reduced by disease late in the 1700s, thus making it even less likely that in the course of their regular activities they would have wiped out much of the wildlife in the area. Yet there remains the possibility that the observations of these early writers were to some extent true; furthermore, the circumstances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries do admit the possibility of long-established balances between native people and wildlife having been disturbed. Three events could have influenced the balances; the development of the fur trade, the introduction of firearms, and the introduction of domestic livestock. These will be discussed next.
The Fur Trade
The fur trade began to have measurable effects on the tribes on both sides of the Cascades around 1800. The Puget Sound region was frequented occasionally by coastal traders in the 1790s, but "the dense forests east and south of Puget Sound were not productive of many furs" (Phillips 1961) and so the trade was never very heavy in that area. As the various parties interested in controlling the fur trade in the northwest struggled for control, trade was uneven, competitive, and often likely to take advantage of the Indians (Morris 1937; Rich 1959), but it does not seem to have been intense enough in the Puget Sound area to have had much effect on the Mount Rainier area (there was often a "ripple effect" of trade, so that regions farther and farther from trading centers gradually became depleted of game as the demand increased; a hide might change hands several times, from the native trapper, through intermediary native traders, and finally to the white trader).
Fort Nisqually was established in 1833 on Puget Sound near the mouth of the Nisqually River by the Hudson's Bay Company (Troxel 1950; Johansen and Gates 1957). The company encouraged the tribes in the area to bring furs in for trade; in the tradition of most trading posts, the actual trapping was left largely to the natives (Saum 1965; Chittenden 1902). Tracing the effects of the fur trade on elk populations in the vicinity of Mount Rainier is simplified by the apparent preference of most of the involved tribes, even the Yakima and Klickitat east of the divide (Glauert and Kunz 1976), for trading at Fort Nisqually. If white-encouraged hunting of elk reduced elk populations, the evidence should have turned up in the form of hides or meat at the fort. By providing the natives with commercial incentives and possibly firearms, the Hudson's Bay Company could conceivably have reduced elk numbers substantially in a relatively short time.
Elk hunting on a scale sufficient to effect such a reduction cannot be proven by the records of Fort Nisqually. The "Journal of Occurrences at Nisqually House" was kept religiously, tallying fur trade activity, but the surviving copies (Bagley 1915; Fort Nisqually 1835-1839) suggest that trade in both meat and hides of elk was slight. The figures are difficult to determine exactly, but it is safe to say that fewer than 100 elk hides were recorded for the period 1833-1839. As well, very few purchases of elk meat (100 pounds is the largest) were made in the same period. One of the reasons for the difficulty of establishing exact numbers of hides is that some tallies were listed monthly and others were greater accumulations that were being prepared for shipment. The monthly tallies do not always add up to the larger tallies. This may be in part because, in the words of Johnson (1850), who observed the operation in 1841,
The differences in the tallies could be a reflection of the destruction of bad skins, but even if twice as many were brought in as were finally shipped the number would still be too small to represent a major reduction of elk numbers in the region.
By the 1840s the fur trade was in sharp decline. Wilkes, writing in 1841, observed that trade was well past its peak:
Fort Nisqually was in fact within a few years of its establishment far more important as an agricultural station, where crops and domestic stock not only proved more commercially viable than fur trading but also quickly removed the need for trade in wild meat. So common was domestic meat at the fort that by the time James Longmire arrived with other settlers in 1853 Dr. Tolmie (by then Chief Factor for Fort Nisqually) simply gave the settlers an ox-cart load of beef, refusing payment (Longmire 1932).
The arrival of firearms, separate from the incentive to kill game for the fur trade, could also have affected elk population levels in the early years of the 1800s, but available evidence does not indicate it did so. As noted previously, the tribes most involved with hunting near Mount Rainier were primarily fish-oriented in their food habits and remained so even after white settlement (until agricultural habits were forced upon them). Firearms were also of greatest use to tribes in the habit of warring frequently with neighbors, which the tribes we are concerned with did not do. It has been noted that many tribes regarded firearms as objects of status and weapons of war much more than as tools for hunting (Ewer 1972). In many circumstances primitive trade guns were not as effective, and certainly not as rapidly fired, as were native bows.
Lewis and Clark encountered armed, unfriendly Indians at the "Lower Dalles" of the Columbia, evidence that trading was well underway on the river by the beginning of the nineteenth century. It continued and increased in the next twenty years, and firearms were a point of contention among the competing white traders. The British regularly complained that the Americans were recklessly trading both guns and liquor to the Indians, a practice that allowed the Americans to outbargain their British counterparts while arming potentially hostile natives (the British and Russians signed a treaty in 1825 that "forbade both nations to sell spirits, fire-arms, gunpowder, or other warlike stores")(Rich 1959). Once into the trade network, however, a gun could travel great distances, just as horses, tools, and smallpox moved along similar routes. Most tribes in the Mount Rainier area certainly had access to a few firearms after 1810, though it was reported (Ruby and Brown, 1981) that the Cowlitz had no guns as late as 1814, and as late as 1824 "the Puget Sound peoples had changed little since their initial contact with white men. They had bows, arrows, spears, and bludgeons, but few guns" (Ruby and Brown 1981).
One reason for the shortage of firearms in this area may have been the need for greater security. After Fort Nisqually was established and through the 1830s there was great concern among Hudson's Bay Company men that warlike tribes from the north might attack (Ruby and Brown 1981). Guns were occasionally sold at Fort Nisqually, but appear not to have been a major trade item. Pace (pers. comm.) believes that Yakima groups acquired most of the guns they had through trade with coastal tribes and at Fort Nisqually, and probably did not use such guns enough for hunting to seriously affect wildlife populations.
The extent to which tribes of the foothills and uplands near Mount Rainier may have used firearms is unknown. As mentioned earlier, both Cowlitz and Snoqualmie were known to be excellent hunters and to trade in meat. These two tribes would have been in the best geographical position to take elk from winter range near the present park, and it is possible that they could have hunted these areas (the Snoqualmie in the White River Valley and the Cowlitz on the upper Cowlitz and Ohanapecosh) with firearms for more than a decade before the arrival of the traders at Fort Nisqually, and in that time could have done considerable damage. Considering their location on trade routes between tribes to the east and the tribes of the Puget Soundtribes that did not have many firearmsit seems more probable that not many guns were available to these foothill tribes.
The historical record does not offer persuasive evidence that the fur trade or the arrival of firearms seriously altered the population levels of elk in the vicinity of Mount Rainier. Increased ease of hunting under some circumstances and increased incentive for obtaining skins (either by hunting or by trade with other tribes) almost certainly caused some individuals to kill more game than they otherwise would have. Unfortunately, so little is known of the degree to which Indians may have suppressed elk population levels prior to the coming of white influences that we have no basis for comparison. As far as the effects of the fur trade on elk populations, we may assume that it increased hunting at least slightly and may therefore have had a minor effect on elk numbers. Perhaps in concert with other effects, to be discussed later, the fur trade played a role in causing the paucity of game reported by the early white explorers and surveyors.
Domestic Stock in the Mount Rainier Area
European influence on many native American cultures began with the horse. Though horses were not an important part of life for Puget Sound Cultures (Ray 1939), the tribes of the Columbia obtained their first horses from tribes to the south early in the eighteenth century. Groups in the Yakima Valley had horses by 1730 (Roe 1955; Haines 1938; Pace pers. comm.). Some tribes along the lower Columbia reportedly had thousands of horses (Fuller 1928) and the Yakima were known to be rich in horses as well (Haines 1938; Jermann and Mason 1976).
The presence of horses in the Yakima Valley could have affected elk in any of several ways. As the native people became more mobile they may have had convenient access to previously unused hunting grounds, or to more regular trade with skin-working groups elsewhere. With greater mobility might have come a greater need for portable shelters constructed of skins. And the horses themselves might have competed directly with elk for food.
The horse does not seem to have led to major changes in the territory hunted by the Yakima; though mobility was increased they still faced traditional constraints of tribal boundaries. They may have traveled more frequently or more quickly to their established hunting grounds. They were, after all, traders before the arrival of the horse, accustomed to crossing the Cascades regularly.
The grazing competition between horses and elk is difficult to evaluate, in part because we know so little about the distribution or numbers of elk in the Yakima Valley. According to Daubenmire (1970), grazing pressure by Indian horse herds in eastern Washington was typically restricted to "the vegetation adjacent to the villages that were strung out along rivers." Presumably a similar situation would have occurred in the Yakima Valley. Horses were closely tended to prevent theft, which would occur often if the animals were allowed to roam. If elk were present near those same sites they would undoubtedly be competing with horses, but elk would probably not occur in numbers so near well-established villages because of hunting pressure. If, as Daubenmire has suggested for eastern Washington (Daubenmire 1970), ungulate numbers were low for reasons of climate, the horses may have had little competition for grazing in any case.
It does not seem, then, that domestic livestock had a significant effect on elk numbers, especially west of the Cascade crest, before white men arrived. Far greater influence was had by introductions of domestic stock by whites during the settlement of the Oregon Territory.
Oliphant (1968) has reviewed the development of the cattle and sheep trade in the territory from the first unsuccessful attempts by Spaniards to establish a herd of Cattle at Neah Bay in 1792. When George Simpson became Governor of the Department of the Columbia for Hudson's Bay Company in 1824 he introduced stern, far-reaching reforms in the rather relaxed management of the fur trade there. Probably no reform was as far-reaching as his commitment to making the posts not only as agriculturally self-sufficient as possible but also commercially profitable by the marketing of their produce and livestock. The growth of livestock herds in the vicinity of Fort Nisqually was surprisingly rapid considering the small human population of the area. By 1841 there were "more than 600 cows and more than three-thousand ewes" being grazed near the fort and on the Nisqually plains (Oliphant 1968). The amount of cultivation at Fort Nisqually was not largeonly about 100 acres in 1845 (Oliphant 1968)but the herds continued to grow. In 1844 "nearly seven thousand pounds" of wool was shipped from the fort, and in 1854 the total was over thirteen thousand pounds (Bagley 1982). At the same time, by 1854 Dr. Tolmie reported that sheep were occupying all available pasturage on the Nisqually plains, and so he took 3,600 south to near Eugene, Oregon (Bagley 1982). The Indian Wars of 1854-1855 did not slow this growth for long, and in the 1860s the Puget Sound Agricultural Company (the organization that ran the farm operations) held "from 5,000 to 8,000 head of cattle and from 6,000 to 10,000 sheep, also 300 head of horses," most being grazed on the Nisqually plain (Bagley 1982).
The destruction of the grazing lands of the Nisqually plain has been discussed by Bagley (1982), who maintained that the damage was not done by the Puget Sound Agricultural Company but by later settlers:
Of course these damages being described were primarily in the Puget Sound trough, many miles from Mount Rainier. However Blankenship (1914) and Bagley (1982) reported that one result of this heavy grazing was the occurrence of wild cattle herds that ranged the woods, some becoming so wild that it took a skilled hunter to track them down. These may have ranged farther east, and had some unmeasured effect on elk grazing closer to the mountain, just as the great herds described above surely did in the trough itself.
After 1860 the pace of settlement increases the difficulty of distinguishing causes and effects related to elk numbers and their possible reductions. By 1870, the period during which Bagley (1982) claimed the Nisqually plains were being overgrazed, there were 24,000 whites in Washington Territory, most west of the Cascades (Bagley 1924).
Settlement of any significance did not approach the present park boundaries until the 1880s. In 1884 James Longmire, long familiar with the upper Nisqually region, built his first cabin in the present park at Longmire (Thompson 1981). He engaged in minimal cultivation, had little livestock, and hunted regularly. To the north, the White River Valley remained largely undeveloped. As late as 1884 Smalley (1885) saw only "a few settlers" established in the upper White River Valley. To the south the transplanted Appalachians who settled the upper Cowlitz region in the 1880s found little ground suitable for cultivation (Clevenger 1938; Tompkins 1933) and left no record of finding elk though they frequently hunted deer and bear with their dogs. It seems unlikely that these small settlements near the present park engaged in enough livestock raising to significantly reduce available elk forage.
To the east the Yakima groups were known to have large numbers of cattle by the 1850s (Oliphant 1968), though many were lost in the wars from 1854 to 1858. The famous chief Kamiakin lost "thousands of horses and a large number of cattle" (Splawn 1917) in these wars. Again, we can assume that this livestock had some influence on vegetation, and if elk were still present in the Yakima Valley in the 1860s they were probably finding themselves crowded out of much of their range. By the 1880s, population pressures were increasing here as well as in the Puget Sound trough, so that by 1886 a promotional article on "Ellenburg and the Kittitas Valley" could report a wholesale conquest of the foothills by domestic livestock:
This brief summary of livestock development in the region around Mount Rainier illustrates the growing complexity of the incursions on wildlife habitat that were occurring because of cultivation, herding, and, ultimately, population growth. After 1870 it becomes increasingly difficult to separate out any one cause from another as the above land uses, coupled with timber harvest, mining activity, hunting, and recreational activities of various sorts, made life more and more difficult for the remaining elk of the Cascades.
But setting aside the developments after the arrival of the first surveyors and exploring parties for the moment, we have seen that little evidence exists to support the beliefs of those first writers that Indians had recently wiped out the game. At least none of the white-introduced influences should have been responsible. No evidence has been found that elk were present around Mount Rainier in great numbers immediately prior to the arrival of the horse on the Columbia Plateau or the arrival of firearms in the Puget Sound trough. If, as historical accounts suggest, elk were scarce around Mount Rainier in the early 1800s, we must look for other reasons besides sudden increases in Indian hunting activity shortly before the arrival of white men to account for that scarcity.
Among the common species of big game, the elk is quite often the first to disappear from an area being settled. Elk conveniently gather themselves in open places every autumn, then advertise their presence by bugling:
So it seemed to be in Washington, where elk disappeared quickly from the vicinity of any settlement. The last elk reported killed near Seattle died in 1869 (Denny 1901), by which time settlers rarely noted elk in their journals of life in the Puget Sound trough, and virtually never recalled them in later reminiscences of that area (for example Blankenship 1914; Bagley 1905; Hunt 1916; Loutzenhiser 1949; Longmire 1917; Prosch 1894; Prosch 1910; Tanis 1952; Trotter, Loutzenhiser, and Loutzenhiser 1937; Washington Pioneer Association 1904).
Accounts of pioneer life say little about elk, but most say little more about deer or other wildlife. It is clear, in any case, that some elk survived in various parts of the Cascades until well after the turn of the century. Perhaps one reason so little attention was paid these remaining animals was the far greaterand more easily huntedpopulation of elk on the Olympic Peninsula, the hunting of which frequently became a public issue in the 1890s (Washington Standard1891; Jenkins and Starkey 1980).
Even quite late in the century some popular authors maintained that elk occurred generally in the Cascades (Victor 1891; Shields 1899), and some specific reports supported that contention. Coleman (1869) reported elk hunting by Indians "at the foot of Mt. Baker" in 1869, and Edson (1916) reported that the elk was apparently only recently gone from that mountain in 1916. In 1898 the State Fish Commissioner reported on the status of elk in the Cascades and the Olympics:
At that time it was legal to kill two elk per season.
Two years later the Commissioner complained that the laws did not permit him to gather sufficient information on game harvest to determine the status of game animals (Little 1900); records were kept only intermittently for some years after that, varying with the county (Washington Historical Records Survey Project 1940).
The milestone document in this period of elk history in Washington is probably C. Hart Merriam's description of "Roosevelt's Wapiti," published in 1897. In it Merriam discussed the range of the elk, particularly referring to the Cascades:
Merriam, then believed that elk were entirely gone from the Cascades by 1897. The collections of elk material made by the U.S. Biological Survey in Washington state in the late 1890sat least those that found their way to the National Museumcontain specimens only from the Olympic Peninsula. It was presumably this collecting work upon which Merriam based his belief (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1983). Merriam had, in the summer of 1897, led a survey and collecting party from the Yakima Valley into Mount Rainier (Taylor and Shaw 1927). This party collected no elk or elk specimens on either side of the Cascades (A.K. Fisher 1897a; 1897b; 1897c; 1897d; W.K. Fisher 1897; V. Bailey 1897a; 1897b). In a 1900 map, "Range of Elk in 1900," Merriam included only the Olympic Peninsula and the extreme southeastern corner of the state within the known elk range at that date (Roosevelt, et al. 1902). Writing in the same volume with the map, T.S. Van Dyke observed of the elk that "on the great plains and lower slopes of California, as well as in the more open woods of the Coast Range and the beautiful upper slopes of the Cascades, he is probably gone forever" (Roosevelt et al. 1902).
In response to the reported slaughter of elk on the Olympic Peninsula, the Washington state legislature closed all elk hunting in 1905 and kept it closed until the 1920s (Thomas and Toweill 1982; May 1965). As early as 1916 the state's Chief Game Warden reported that the Olympic Peninsula was the only place "where the Roosevelt variety is to be found," noting that "So great in number have they become that it has been reported to me by agents of the United States Government as far back as a year and a half ago that they were dying of starvation" (Darwin 1916).
Despite the convictions of these authorities, there were continuing reportsor at least continuing suspicionsof native elk in the Cascades from the time of the first introductions of Rocky Mountain elk all the way up to the present. As we will see momentarily, some of these reports have involved Mount Rainier National Park itself.
Graf believed that as late as the 1950s the elk "in the Mt. St. Helens District of Skamania and Cowlitz Counties" may have been native elk:
Twight reported that some native elk may have occurred south of Mount Rainier National Park, and therefore in the park, in the 1960s:
Weisbrod (1971) made a similar suggestion, and Scharpf (pers. comm.) believes that native elk have persisted to the present in the Packwood area. It has also been suggested that populations of elk using the western side of the park "may be crossbred with the Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti), which was probably native to that portion of the park" (U.S.N.P.S., n.d.).
The consequences of this proposed survival of pockets of native elk may be unimportant for current practical management of the elk population, but the possibility that native and introduced elk have interbred to some extent presents interesting philosophical challenges to managers concerned about use of the park by animals that some judge to be "non-native," and equally interesting technical challenges to biologists attempting to resolve the classification of the native elk.
Historical accounts of elk numbers in the Cascades near Mount Rainier are in general agreement that the animals were not numerous; no reliable accounts speak of large herds, or of evidence of heavy elk use of the country near the present park. If anything, elk numbers were even lower by the time regular visitation to the park area by whites began. We can now turn to the park itself, and records of elk there.
Last Updated: Monday, 18-Oct-2004 20:10:54
Author: Natural & Cultural Resources Division
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