A Natural History of the Elk Species in Southern Oregon

image of elk from Lodge charter

by Lodge 944 member, "A. Servus"

Part 1: In the Beginning

For countless centuries before the first American settlers swarmed into the Rogue Valley during the early 1850s, Elks had been regularly meeting and doing their good work near the present site of Ashland.  These big-hearted Elks joined together, enjoyed Elk festivities, and passed the true meaning of Elkdom on to their younger members.  Yes, the natural four-legged brotherhood and sisterhood of Cervus roosevelti (Roosevelt elk) long roamed our valley, foothills, and mountains.  By far the largest herbivore of the region, herds of Roosevelt elk had likely been hanging out in our neck of the woods since around the end of the last Ice Age.

Those hungry two-legged farmers and miners from back East followed the example of the Shasta and Takelma Indians, as well as that of the Rogue Valley’s ferocious grizzly bears: they hunted elk for food (and, later, for sport). 

However, the relentless pressure and increasingly effective use of firearms by our local hunters became so successful that, by around 1900, very few elk were left in our area.  Only after this sad fact did Oregon’s big-game regulations really come to act as an effective factor in the state’s wildlife conservation efforts.  And, only decades after that did state game officials bring a few doubtlessly frightened Rocky Mountain elk from Wyoming and release them in the high country around Prospect and Crater Lake --- there to become the nucleus of our region’s present elk herds.

In fact, our region’s last remaining native elk had apparently “hid out” way up in that very same remote portion of the Cascade Range, where a few of them may have joined forces with their newcomer Rocky Mountain cousins.  In contrast to the few remaining native elk inhabiting the distant Cascades, those of the Siskiyou Mountains (the lower slopes of which rise up from Ashland’s Main Street) had apparently been pretty well wiped out by miners and commercial hide-hunters long before that.    In 1924, it was front-page news in the Ashland Daily Tidings (December 3, 1924, p.1) when a lone bull elk stumbled down out of the snowy hills and into Lithia Park.  He was (at least so far as A. Servus has been able to determine) the very last wild, four-legged Elk known to “step hoof” into the city limits.  The poor bloke was immediately shot. 

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Part 2: What's In a Name?

Also including the recounting of a True-Life Elk Adventure

Never let it be said that A. Servus is too proud to admit error.  Your loyal and thoroughly humbled correspondent has one minor correction to make:  In Part 1 (April issue) of this series, A. Servus’s fact-filled memory banks were not operating at full-power, and he thus proved to be a bit careless with his scientific terminology.  Up until just the past few years, the scientific name of the Roosevelt elk was actually Cervus elaphus roosevelti, it being a subspecies of North American (a.k.a. Rocky Mountain) elk, Cervus elaphus

Cervus Elaphus AnatomyAnd just what does this puzzling bit of scholarly nomenclature mean?  The answer to that question is doubly puzzling:  “Cervus” comes from the Latin term for deer; “elaphus” is derived from the Greek word for…deer.  That means, of course, that the official scientific name for our four-legged Elk brothers and sisters translated roughly as “Deer deer.”   (That scientific name, perhaps the brainchild of the “Dept. of Redundancy Department,” has only recently been changed to Cervus candensis )  But now also consider the strange factoid that the generic name for those smaller, arrogant, antlered, tulip-munching hoofed locusts lately infesting our yards (the ones that we commonly call “deer”) is Odocoileus, meaning “hollow toothed,” and you will begin to appreciate the relentless logic of biological taxonomy.  (Fortunately, when lumped together, deer, elk, moose, and such are all referred to as “Cervids.”)

If, at this point, you are still reading, A. Servus now intends to reward your patience by regaling you with the tale of his very first personal encounter with a herd of wild elk:  In the Summer of 1970, while still very “short in the tooth” and having only recently moved to the Pacific Northwest from the East Coast, an ignorant city-slicker Servus eagerly purchased all the latest in backpacking equipment and set off on his first overnight trip into the howling wilderness.  This was his dream come true.  Along a deeply forested trail, your intrepid servant was climbing, albeit very slowly and laboriously, up the forested lower slopes of Mt. Rainier.  It was nearing dusk --- and still far from any mapped campsite --- when the trail finally brought him up onto the crest of an open ridge, where the firs and cedars gave way to a refreshing expanse of lush grass and wildflowers.  There, visible to him for the first time, was the sunset-bathed majesty of the icy 14,400’-high mountain, all pink and glowing against a purple-and-turquoise sky.  Incredible sight!

As our panting and sweat-soaked traveler stopped to catch his breath, drink in the beauty, and heed an urgent call of nature, the wind suddenly shifted.   As if ordered by the Great Mountain’s Spirit to frighten the novice woodsman, the quiet meadow instantaneously filled with the sound of what seemed like not-so-distant thunder.  And then:  Elk to the left of him, elk to the right of him, pounded and thundered --- their hooves kicking up dust across the patches of barren ground.  Sweeping around him and past him, some within a few yards: a large herd of cows and calves on the run…hurtling straight down the hillside and into the forest…their racing pace now marked by the on-going crashing din of dead branches being torn from the trees…until that sound gradually fades in the distance far below… 

After some moments of heart-thumping terror, dauntless young Servus recovers his composure.  With darkness upon him, he pitches his tent there in the ridge-top meadow, right next to the trail.   Servus spends a near-sleepless night watching the constellations slowly whirl overhead…his ears ever alert for any sound that might herald the dreaded “Return of the Elk.”

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Part 3:  More Four-legged Elklore

Like their friendly two-legged namesakes of Lodge #944, the original Elks of our region were and are social critters.  However, elk society is basically — at least for most of the year---a true matriarchy.  Under the leadership of an experienced dominant cow, a herd of mature cows, their calves, and adolescents of both sexes form a social group from year to year.  The calves (born around the end of May when feed is plentiful for mothers and the weather mild) nurse frequently for the first month or two and are then weaned over the course of the summer.  Herds can range between just a few animals to over thirty. 

elk calfDuring the summer, a calfless-cow acts as a designated “babysitter” while the mother cows shove their pesky young ones away; this is so that the moms can wander off together for a bit of rest, feed on the grass, and presumably brag or complain about their offspring. 

When a young male has finished his yearling (second) summer, the adult bulls that suddenly show up at the herd (with some serious romance on their minds) drive the poor bloke off.  (So much for impressiveness of those first year’s antlers he was so proud of.)   Junior usually finds a few other guys in the same predicament to hang with for the first few years, and these fellows hover near the fringes of the cow-herd, even re-joining it during the winters right after mating season and the big bulls are gone.  

After five years or so of antler envy, the male has now become a full-grown bull, ready to rock and roll.  Although the bull typically joins a small temporary group of other mature bulls each year from winter through summer, during the early-fall rutting season, it’s definitely “every bull for himself!” 

Challenges, stand-offs, savage fights (occasionally to the death) mark the rut.  The bull elk entering the dating game carefully prepares himself for the rigors of combat and courtship in remarkable fashion:  First he repeatedly rubs his muzzle (which has scent glands on each side) against a number of trees and posts, to mark his favorite hang out.  Then he picks out one unfortunate bush or small tree to thrash and shred to pieces with his up-to-5’-long antlers, sometimes abusing the same bush for several days at a time.

Frequent loud bugling warns competitors that he’s almost ready to strut his stuff.  Next, and now nearly ready for the prom, the swollen-necked bull urinates frequently and copiously at his chosen spot in the woods.  Sloshing his antlers into the resulting mud, he tosses the mixture onto his back and flanks.  One final touch is to roll around in his aromatic wallow before trotting off to the dance.

With the disappearance of southern Oregon’s wolves and grizzly bears by around 1900, the main predators of our elk have been cougars and, of course, the ever-increasing numbers of ourselves.  Cougars focus on young or injured animals.  Occasionally, a black bear will successfully compete with a cougar for a tasty meal of elk venison.  We two-legged ones generally go after the mature bulls. 

During recent decades in Oregon, about 200,000 elk tags were sold each year (with an annual return of over $2,000,000 to the state treasury.)   Perhaps 10% or so of yearly elk deaths are caused by vehicle accidents.  Early dawn and twilight dusk are the hours when elk (and deer) are most active, and that’s definitely the time when drivers on forested roads should slow down and exercise the greatest caution.  Remember, “the Elk life you save may be your own”:  A full-grown bull elk crashing through your car’s windshield and joining you on the front seat, antlers and all, has the makings of a double tragedy.

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Part 4:  A Buffalo of the Mountains: Elk and the Local Indians

Our hardy, inventive predecessors, those people that we now know as “American Indians” (or as “Native Americans”), had lived in Southern Oregon for thousands of years before the first pale-complexioned explorers rode exhausted horses up over Siskiyou Pass and down into the Rogue River valley.  

The natives hunted elk.  Elk, as the largest creature hereabouts (save for the grizzly bear), provided local Indians with food, clothing, tools, jewelry, and many other items.   Indeed, during the times of poor salmon runs, elk could become almost as important to them as buffalo were to the Indians of the Great Plains.

The Indians of the Rogue River valley area included three different ethnic groups:  the “Takelma,” the “Shasta,” and the “Dakubetede”  (pronounced da-koo-ba-tee-dee).  Although these three groups spoke very distinct languages (as different from each other as English is from Chinese), they all shared a very similar way of making their living from the land.  With the exception of the tobacco that they cultivated for ritual purposes, these people grew no crops at all.  Rather than farm for their keep, the Takelma, Shasta, and Dakubetede fished, gathered, and hunted wild food.  

elk horn spoonsMeat, fresh or dried, was a perennial favorite on the menu.  A successful hunter was truly one happy guy and a well-respected member of the village.  Although deer often provided much of a village’s yearly meat supply, local Indians considered elk to be far more rewarding (if more challenging) prey.   As noted by A. Servus in a previous essay, the average elk weighs over three times that of the average deer.  Thus, a single elk “brought to ground” proved to be a much more efficient use of a hunter’s time and energy.  A young man proudly distributed the meat from his first elk to everyone else in the village, but (to ensure his future hunting success) he ate none of it himself.

The Takelma’s name for elk was “t’gam” (pronounced da-gam).  Takelma and other hunters kept dogs (the local Indians’ only domesticated animals) for help in hunting both deer and elk.   Deer drives --- using dogs, fire, and noise-making to drive the terrified animals into piled-brush enclosures where they could be easily killed --- were important cooperative endeavors. 

Besides meat, just what did the local Indians used elk for?  Many things.  The Takelma and Shasta transformed elk antlers into a variety of tools (from arrow-point flakers and log-splitting wedges to digging-stick handles and dinner spoons).  A man very carefully carved, hollowed out, and decorated the thick base of an antler into his very own tube-like container for carrying his shell “money.”  

native american elk armorWhen setting off for warfare, men donned stiff “arrow-proof vests” of undressed elk hide that covered the body from neck to hips.  They also wore elk-hide helmets.  Thick elk hide also served as the sole piece for moccasins. Women fashioned elk ribs into hide scrapers, and used elk scapulae (shoulder blades) as shovels.  They sometimes wore elk teeth as decoration on their finest buckskin dresses (the same lower-jaw teeth that once decorated many an Elks member’s watch fob).  A number of hooves, attached to a stick, would become a musical instrument, rattling to the beat of a song.

So, kind of like a “buffalo of the mountains,” Rogue Valley elk indeed provided our Indian forebears with many useful products.  And, bull elk also doubtless formed the key character in many a hunting tale told around the night-time fire…”Remember that one humongous bull we tracked for two days?!  And then, how, just as we thought we had him, he….” 

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Part 5 "Most Excellent Sport!”: Elk and the Early Whites

Now then, having considered the relationship between the stout-hearted four-legged Elk and the local Indians, we finally come to those Elk who experienced the arrival of the very first White interlopers over Siskiyou Pass --- and to the hordes of settlers that followed upon their heels.   Peter Ogden

The very first Whites that came into the Rogue River valley, who arrived in February 1827, were French-Canadian fur trappers who worked for the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company.  Their leader was an interesting fellow named Peter Skene Ogden, who at this time was about in the middle of his HBC career (and who is today famous as one of the most wide-ranging explorers of the Far West). 

Ogden’s men, having traveled the discouraging desert country of central Oregon, were trapping beaver.   Because of the high demand for “beaver hats” in Europe and the eastern U.S., the thick pelts of North America’s largest rodent were considered to be like “soft gold” --- a very valuable commodity indeed. 

However, Ogden’s fur brigade also included several men whose main job was to hunt game to feed the trappers and their native wives (who cooked the meals, skinned the beaver, and tended the camps).  The hungry brigade traveled, light and continuously, across the then unknown and difficult landscape of southwestern Oregon and northern-most California --- and in the dead of winter (when the pelts were prime).   The brigade had already slaughtered one of its horses for food when they found the Klamath Indians willing to trade some of their hunting dogs for Ogden’s metal axe heads, glass beads, and such.  The hapless canines were quickly dispatched and thrown into the pot.

Once the brigade had descended the Klamath River and, in early February, began to head north to cross Siskiyou Pass, the men reported seeing a few of what Ogden called “red deer” (the traditional English term for elk).  These sightings of “red deer” occurred while trapping the streams near Hilt.  Elk, because of their large size, were the prime target of Ogden’s hunters, but until now the animals had been extremely scarce --- hanging out in higher elevations than the brigade’s travel route.  Once Ogden crossed the Siskiyou Summit and descended Emigrant and Bear Creeks to the vicinity of Ashland, a few “red deer” were taken.  (Perhaps a full stomach of meat was one of the reasons for his journal’s lavish praise of the valley, its mild February climate, its resources, and its beauty.)

Elk, although not shot in large numbers, contributed to the trappers’ dinner menus for the next several weeks, as did regular “deer.”.  Thus, the successful exploration of our Valley in 1827 was partially enabled by our ever-generous local Elk.  Over the next dozen years or so, other Hudson’s Bay Co. trapping parties came through the area, and, although there is no written testimony, they undoubtedly hunted and feasted on tasty roasts and steaks of  “red deer.” 

Then, in September 1841, a small group of U. S. Navy officers and their scientific colleagues (part of the so-called “Wilkes Expedition”) passed through the Rogue River Valley on their way south from the Columbia River to San Francisco Bay.  Beginning around the future site of Canyonville and continuing through to Siskiyou Pass, these American explorers mentioned seeing herds of “red deer” --- as well as numerous regular deer and even, in the valley near present Central Point, a small herd of pronghorn antelope.

Thus far, our four-legged Southern Oregon Elk brethren had easily recruited new young members to their lodges in sufficient quantities to keep pace with the scythe of the Grim Reaper.  But, in the early 1850s, events dramatically changed that situation.  Instead of a few dozen Whites exploring or passing through, after the discovery of gold in 1851-52 first hundreds, then thousands, of them arrived here within the space of a decade.  Miners flocked to the diggings.  During the winter of 1852-53, before dependable freight supply routes from north or south had been established (and before local farms were up and running), the hordes of hungry men ate anything they could get their hands on.  Elk, of course, were at the top of the list.  Hunters went out and shot as many elk as their ammo and skill permitted, and packed the carcasses down to Jacksonville or the tiny settlement at Ashland Mills, where the meat fetched a very high price.

buckskin jacketThroughout the 1860s and 1870s, Jackson County settlers continued to shoot as many elk as they possibly could, often regardless of sex or age (this was also the time of the great slaughter of buffalo on the Great Plains).  The more elk killed during a hunting trip, the more prestigious the hunter.  Oregon’s first game protection laws, including take limits and seasons, were on the books by the 1880s --- but, for the most part, these regulations were ignored, “honored only in the breach.”   The 1880s-1890s also brought relentless commercial hide-hunting to our region.  Itinerant teams of professional hunters -- to the dismay and outrage of local people --- spread through the mountains bagging as many deer and elk as they could.  Hides were then packed on to railroad cars and shipped to cities for manufacture into deerskin gloves and buckskin coats (at that time such clothing made a “fashion statement”).  Elk hides were turned into thicker fancy-eather clothing.  And --- to our regret --- many a bull was killed merely for its large “ivory” teeth, which then became decoration for the pocket-watch fobs of the growing numbers of two-legged Elks.

By the very early 1900s, our four-legged brethren had entered into a steep decline in membership.  The centuries-old “lodges” out in the forest dwindled and then disappeared.

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Part 6:  “Return of the Monster Elk!”: Elk Recovery since 1900

(This is sixth and final installment in the exclusive Lodge 944 series, by A. Servus)

Loyal readers, we come, at last, to the sixth and last article in this series about our local wild elk --- a series that it has been your humble servant A. Servus’s unique privilege and pleasure to provide for your edification and entertainment.

Last time, we considered the unfortunate relationship between our four-legged Elk brethren and our own two-legged (but well-armed!) predecessors during the late 1800s --- a time of slaughter and extirpation of southern Oregon’s native elk.   Not only meat, but hides, “ivories,” and antlers brought commercial hunters into our forests, and the elk fell before the advancing horde of trigger-happy dollar hounds.  Fortunately, the twentieth-century continuation of our story concludes on a far happier note.

As was related last month in A. Servus’s Part 5 essay, by 1900 elk has become extremely scarce throughout the entire interior of southern Oregon.  (Even the coastal herds were dwindling fast.)   And, it is believed that the very last of the upper Rogue River drainage’s native elk had disappeared by about 1920-30.

Even before that date, however, the State of Oregon’s Game Commission had taken measures to return elk to our region.  In 1918 the Game Commission transplanted a small herd of elk into Crater Lake National Park (in Klamath County).  However, these were not Roosevelt elk --- the species that had once happily roamed the southern Cascades and the Siskiyous all the way over to the Coast --- but were instead Rocky Mountain elk (old Cervus elaphus).  Further, these particular elk weren’t even native Oregonians!  Although they were indeed temporarily held at Wallowa County’s Billy Meadows, in northeastern Oregon, they arrived there as non-paying railroad passengers from Wyoming’s Jackson Hole area, probably from somewhere in present-day Grand Teton National Park.  Whether any of these long-distance migrants to Crater Lake survived and increased is apparently unknown.  A few of them may have made it for the long haul, and their genes may have later become mixed with those of our present elk herds here in the southern Oregon.   (According retired ODFW wildlife biologist Merv Wolfer, the somewhat larger-than-average size antlers of some of the bulls in the southern Cascade Range may point to cross-breeding between the 1918 Rocky Mountain transplants and later releases of coastal Roosevelt elk.)

The State of Oregon planted no other elk (of any species) in southern Oregon until the 1960s.  At that time, the agency that is today’s Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife (OFDW) captured some of the happily Douglas-fir-munching Roosevelt elk from the delicious seedling plantations of the Millicoma Tree Farm, near Coos Bay.  The ODFW released these animals into the upper Umpqua River drainage of Douglas County.  The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund other ODFW releases of coastal elk into the interior of southern Oregon on into the 1970s and 1980s.  Such releases included locales in Douglas, Klamath, and even Josephine counties.   The first elk “planted” in Josephine County (in the Galice Creek area) fared poorly, apparently due to relentless poaching and “slob hunting” by some local residents.  Later, after the 1987 Silver Fire, more elk were released into that rugged portion of western Josephine County. 

According to Merv Wolfer of ODFW, the state never released any elk into Jackson County itself.  All of the wild elk presently within Jackson County have resulted from the natural expansion of the earlier releases in neighboring counties.  (As with some of their human counterparts in Lodge #944, that fact doubtless shows these individuals’ remarkable good judgment on just where in Oregon it’s best to settle down and be an Elk.)

Although the mountains of the Cascade Range, on the east side of our valley, now support plenty of wild elk, the Siskiyou Mountains (which rise up from the west side of the valley and, historically, were rich in elk) still contain relatively few of the magnificent creatures.   In recent years, a few courageous hoofed pioneers have been spotted near Siskiyou Pass, apparently intent on crossing Interstate Five to the west and exploring the Siskiyous.  And, small numbers of them have also been coming up from California’s Klamath River Canyon country over the past 20 years or so.  These Klamath Canyon animals occasionally roam along portions of the Siskiyou Crest in the headwaters of the Applegate River.  However, no “proud native Oregonian since 1995” should have any fear of these particular California immigrants; the “Golden State” elk are actually descended from webbed-hoofed Oregon elk that were captured up near Astoria and released in northern-most California not too many years ago.

More on well-traveled southern-Oregon elk:  One elk cow captured near Crater Lake and radio-collared by ODFW researchers in the 1980s promptly “disappeared from their radar screen.”  After assuming for several years that her transmitter must have broken or malfunctioned, this cow’s skeleton (with its radio collar still attached) was found by a hunter near Drake Peak, in the rugged Warner Mountains northeast of Lakeview.  For whatever reason, that particular cow had “lit out for parts unknown” --- moving eastward over one-hundred miles through forest and ranchland.

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