Technical Report

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


Though the primary emphasis of this report has been on the native elk prior to the introduction of elk to the area of Mount Rainier from the Rocky Mountains, the historical record provides some useful perspectives on events since the increase in populations of introduced elk. Some specific considerations follow.

The first involves levels of elk presence in the park between 1920 and 1950. According to Bradley and Driver (1981), in the 1950s "changing patterns of land use" near the park "created the winter range necessary to sustain large populations." From this line of thinking we might cautiously consider the possibility that levels of elk use of the park prior to these changes in land use in some way approximated levels of native elk use of the park area in prehistoric times. The variables are numerous, of course, including changes in land use patterns between 1800 and 1950, hunting pressures near the park, possible behavioral differences between the native and introduced elk, changing levels of predation, and so on. Despite the unknowns, the presence of introduced elk in the park (if indeed all the elk in the park from 1920 to 1950 were from introduced stock) is in itself strong circumstantial evidence that the park could just as well have hosted similar numbers of native elk.

As noted earlier, Driver has reviewed elk sightings since the turn of the century, revealing an uneven but more or less constant use of the park by elk since 1920. The Superintendent's Reports (see Appendix I) often commented on elk numbers between 1920 and 1950. Even a quick examination of Driver (1973) and the Superintendent's reports will show that the park's knowledge of elk use of the park in that period was slight. As was the case in other national parks (Schullery 1980, examines wildlife recording procedures for Yellowstone), population estimates were quite often nothing more than rough totals of animals seen and reported, with no attempt made to extrapolate from visible animals for greater purposes, or to interpret the meaning of sightings when they offered seeming surprises. It was this sort of inattention, as excusable as it may have seemed at the time, that allowed park administrators to be so shocked in 1962 when John Larsen informed them that they were host to hundreds of elk.

For example, in his Annual Report for 1936 (covering the fiscal year July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1936), Superintendent Tomlinson estimated "20 to 30" elk in the park (Tomlinson, 1936). As Driver (1973) has shown, elk were reported the following year (1937) in four locations in the eastern half of the park; the elk involved in these four reports almost certainly totaled more than Tomlinson's estimate for the entire park. The road from Cayuse Pass to Ohanapecosh Hot Springs was not opened until 1940, and the road from Paradise to the Stevens Canyon Entrance not until 1957 (though work on it began more than twenty years earlier) (Thompson 1981). Visitation was light over much of the region now most heavily used by elk. Irregular travel by hikers and park personnel could not have provided sufficient coverage to permit even a rough estimate of true elk numbers. It therefore seems certain that we do not have a reasonable estimate of the numbers of elk using the park before the land use changes that reportedly increased that use; we do not, in other words, know from what base population level the later increases started.

It may be possible, through examination of the reports compiled by Driver (1973) and those presented in Appendix I and Appendix II in this report, that some general suppositions could be made about elk presence before 1950. Perhaps the great amounts of information on elk movements presented by Bradley (1982) could be used for comparison, applying known current travel routes and habits to the pieces of information that survive from the period 1920-1950. May (1964) made a preliminary stab at such suppositions with only slight information at hand. His observations on the nature of the incidental sighting are especially interesting. As he pointed out, sometimes an increase in elk numbers can result in a decrease in sightings reported, just because the animals become less surprising and therefore seemingly of less interest to authorities. I notice that in the 1950s, when field personnel began to notice and occasionally report elk on the east side of the park in greater numbers than before (Newman 1956; Monthly Reports of the Chief Naturalists 1950-1960; Bradley pers. comm.), the Superintendent's Reports for the years 1950-1960 said less about elk than during any previous decade since the establishment of the National Park Service (excepting the W.W.II years).

A more subtle consideration than gross population estimates involves the impact of other park mammals on park vegetation. Again we lack sufficient base information from which to measure current levels of use. Discussions of "damage" to park meadows by elk often involve only a consideration of effects had by increasing elk numbers; there is the risk of assuming these meadows were totally unaffected by mammals prior to the recent increases in elk numbers. As has been reported here, writers as early as Willis (1883) commented on some regions of the park where the animal "trails looked like well trodden sheep paths on a New England hill." In this context it is immaterial whether or not Willis was right in assuming these trails were caused by elk, deer, and goats together. The important point is that they existed. Sarvant (1894) used a "well defined game trail" at Ipsut Pass in 1894. Schmoe, on a trip around the peak in 1924, reported that in the vicinity of Cowlitz Chimneys "everywhere there were well defined goat trails and fresh tracks were numerous" (Schmoe 1924c).

Historic levels of impact on the meadows of the park by these other large animals may be determined more clearly by future research, such as the goat study currently underway. The information may be of considerable use in evaluating current levels of elk impact on areas that have been used in common by elk and other animals.

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

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