Technical Report

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


The following conclusions may be drawn from the evidence that has been gathered.

1) There is considerable circumstantial evidence, in the form of anthropological and archeological information, that elk were native to the region very near and presumably in the present park area.

2) There is some evidence that influences of white men on native tribes in the earliest period of cultural contact–about 1730 to 1830–may have contributed to a reduction of elk numbers in the area around Mount Rainier, but the evidence does not suggest that a wholesale reduction of elk numbers occurred at that time.

3) Accounts of the mountain and nearby lands by early white visitors, explorers, and climbers (before 1900) almost never mentioned elk, and when they did it was only vaguely, so that it is difficult to tell if any of the writers actually saw an elk within the present park boundaries.

4) Elk were considered low in numbers throughout the Cascades by many observers by the 1890s; the limited available evidence indicates that elk numbers were also low in the Cascades when the first white settlers arrived.

5) Competent observers reported very small numbers of elk on the western, southern, and eastern sides of the park shortly after 1900. It would appear from these reports that elk were native to the park at the time of its establishment, and that these reports buttress the earlier accounts of elk mentioned in 3 above.

6) Use of the park area by introduced Rocky Mountain elk in the decades immediately following 1912 may be seen as additional evidence that the area was similarly used by native elk in earlier times.

7) Reports by competent observers suggest that native elk never entirely disappeared from the eastern and southern parts of the park, thus "blending" with introduced animals in the years after 1912.

8) Levels of impact now being measured due to elk use of the park cannot be totally regarded as departures from some "pristine" condition because accounts from all historical periods since the beginning of serious exploration indicate animal impact on park vegetation.

Leopold et al. (1963) proposed that "the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by white men. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America." Mount Rainier National Park provides a stimulating example of how difficult this proposal can be to fulfill; furthermore it reveals a potential weakness in the proposal, because the park area as seen by the first white men to enter it was not necessarily the park area as it was before it felt the influence of white men. Horses arrived in the Yakima Valley a full century before Dr. Tolmie crossed the present park boundary on his botanizing excursion, and firearms preceded him by more than a decade. What influences these had on animal populations within the park can hardly even be estimated, but they could only have reduced them if they had any influence at all.

In summary, then, it appears that elk were native to Mount Rainier, and may have been so in all major drainages, the White River drainage being the most doubtfully represented in the historical record. From the time of the first visits by whites to the present park area in the early 1800s on, elk numbers were apparently low; they were so uncommon as to be virtually never seen by the occasional traveler in their range.

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

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