Monday, January 14, 2019

Remembering Elk in the Adirondacks

elkHundreds of years ago, haunting bugle-like calls echoed through these hills and valleys. The sounds were made by bull elk to attract mates and fend off rivals.

Elk in the Northeast?  Yes, elk were once the most widely distributed of North American hoofed mammals. Millions roamed over much of the U.S. and Canada. Adaptable to a variety of habitats, elk were found in the Adirondacks, and in most ecosystems except the tundra, deserts, and the Gulf Coast.

The specific range and number of elk that inhabited the Northeast are unknown, but fossil bones of elk have been found in shell heaps in Maine and at archaeological sites in Rhode Island. Elk antlers have been discovered in bogs in Vermont and a pond in New Hampshire. In The Mohican World, author Shirley Dunn relates a 1714 account of a Native American guide who was showing a group of settlers land near the Catskills. He pointed out a deep path worn in the streambank by herds of elk crossing a river.

Much larger than their whitetailed deer cousins, male elk weigh 600 to 1000 pounds, while females are about 25 percent smaller. The bulls sport massive, spreading antlers. The animals are tawny or cream-colored, except for a dark brown mane around the head and neck. Elk are also known as “wapiti,” a Shawnee word meaning “white rump.”

What happened to the eastern elk? According to historical accounts, when European settlers moved in, elk did not hide, but continued to roam where they always had, foraging near settlements, especially in winter. This made them an easy target, and reportedly settlers often killed more elk than needed: an “exterminating butchery” wrote zoologist J.A. Allen in 1871. In Lives of Game Animals (1929), Ernest Thompson Seton commented, “There are few stories of blood lust more disgusting than that detailing the slaughter of the great elk bands.”

The last elk in Massachusetts was killed in Worcester County in 1732. The few remaining in the Adirondacks, along the North Branch of the Saranac River, were dispatched in 1836. John James Audubon mentioned that by 1851, a handful of elk could still be found in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, but they were gone from the rest of their former range east of the Mississippi. In 1880, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern subspecies of elk extinct.

As the great elk herds dwindled, Teddy Roosevelt and others were moved to save the species in the West. States enacted hunting regulations and banned market hunting of elk. Sanctuaries such as Yellowstone were established.

There were a few early attempts to bring elk back to the Northeast. In the 1890s, sixty wapiti from Minnesota were introduced into the Blue Mountain Game Reserve in southern New Hampshire, owned by Austin Corbin, a wealthy developer. Later, Corbin’s heirs gave some elk to the State of New Hampshire for release. After the animals damaged crops, a hunt was authorized, and today there are no elk in the state, except on game farms. In the early 1900s, elk from Yellowstone were released in Pennsylvania. Today the elk herd in the north-central part of the state numbers about 900, and the Elk Country Visitor Center is a popular attraction.

Pennsylvania elk prefer early successional habitats such as meadows (often provided by reclaimed strip mines), shrublands, and young forests.

In recent years, southern and midwestern states have reintroduced elk. Today, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Arkansas, and Wisconsin have free-ranging elk herds. Elk have spread into West Virginia, and the first wild elk in 275 years was sighted in South Carolina, likely an emigrant from the herd in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kentucky in particular has been a success story, and now has over 10,000 elk. The reintroduced elk are a western subspecies, smaller than the original eastern elk.

Could elk be restored to the Northeast? A 1998 study on the feasibility of restoring elk to New York by two SUNY professors found good habitat, but raised concerns about potential elk-human conflicts such as vehicle collisions and crop damage. New Hampshire state deer biologist Dan Bergeron said he would be concerned about competition with deer and moose. Walter Cottrell, once the wildlife veterinarian for Pennsylvania, strongly advised against the idea. He said Pennsylvania reintroduced elk before chronic wasting disease, a devastating neurological disease that afflicts members of the deer family, became established in parts of the West.

Arkansas brought the disease to their state via elk reintroduction (the disease cannot be tested for in live animals). Bringing elk to the Northeast would put our white-tail deer and moose at risk. We may never hear the bugling of wild elk in here again, but fortunately we can travel south or west to get a glimpse of, and perhaps hear, this magnificent animal.

Susan Shea is a naturalist, conservationist, and freelance writer who lives in Brookfield, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.




21 Responses

  1. Phil Terrie says:

    I don’t like to get into Internet quarrels, but I find most of this posting to be inaccurate. There is no evidence that elk in significant numbers ever lived in the central Adirondacks and probably not much anywhere inside the current blue line.

    Elk prefer open prairies, bottomlands, grassy areas. They do not thrive in the closed-canopy forest that we find in nearly all of the pre-contact Adirondacks. The author of this piece generalizes on the basis of places other than the Adirondacks, citing one elk find in the Adirondacks in 1826, vaguely referring to the North Branch of the Saranac River. I’d like to know where on that river. What is the full citation for that finding?

    If it was settlement that killed off the elk across the Northeast, why is there not a single mention of elk in any of the early exploration or travel narratives about the Adirondacks?

    It’s important to note, moreover, that this certainty that elk lived in the Adirondacks has been around for a long time and led to efforts to stock elk here in the early 20th century–mainly in and around Whitney Park. Because the habitat was unsuitable, this experiment was a complete failure.

    It is certainly likely that some elk may have wandered in to what is now the Adk Park now and then, but to suggest that they were widespread, with their bugling calls echoing across our hills and valleys, is misleading.

    • Steve Bailey says:

      “Elk prefer open prairies, bottomlands, grassy areas”

      I think this is true for the current Elk populations but it’s know that Elk inhabited pretty much all of North America, excepting the gulf coast regions as well as the tundra and far north. Hard to say about the Dak’s as there were few native Americans settled in that region, so possibly not much information from early European settlers as to the game. It’s interesting that the WiKi article on Elk has a distribution map and shows that parts of New England did not (seemingly) have much presence, so I would think the map might be very rough and maybe you are correct about the Adirondacks.

    • Boreas says:

      Phil,

      I am not defending the article, but we have to keep in mind that much of the NE WAS early successional forest each time the glaciers retreated. Poor soils would have restricted forest to pioneer species, shrubs, and grasses for quite some time. As you mention, forest maturation over the next few thousand years would likely have thinned the herds significantly with small pockets hanging on and moving throughout the region – possibly using burned or flooded areas that presented themselves. And eastern elk may have been more tolerant of forests than western elk, since they evolved there. But I agree that they weren’t likely around in large numbers even 500 years ago.

      • AG says:

        True… Animals in different regions behave differently. We can see that with species that are spread out now.

        • Boreas says:

          Another similar example would be the American Bison, which historically ranged as far northeast as central NY.

          • AG says:

            Yes – where the town of buffalo got it’s name… they (like many grazers) used to follow the salt deposits… the natives showed the europeans. It’s amazing how we “forget” such things. Someone would tell you now – “oh there is no way bison can live in upstate NY – they like to be in the open plains”

  2. Steven Leslie says:

    There’s a popular trailhead and parking lot named Elks Pen at Harriman State Park in downstate NY. My guide book says someone brought western elk here early in the 20th century in an attempt to reintroduce them in the northeastern US. They didn’t survive, however. It’d be interesting to know more about this effort.

  3. Eric Lemza says:

    On October 30,1946 a hunter shot what he thought was the biggest whitetail ever in Essex County near Minerva. Upon investigation it was determined the animal was indeed an elk, but no one could figure out where it came from or how it got there. I know the spot but will keep it secret.I killed my first whitetail at the same spot in 1981, a 10 pointer that made the NYS Big Buck Club

  4. tim-brunswick says:

    For once I agree with the majority and have to wonder at “why” the Almanac ever published this type of fantasy!

    Anybody with any superficial knowledge of wildlife in the Northeast and/or Adirondacks knows that while there may have been “some” Elk on occasion in “some” areas if you truly wanted to harvest an Elk there were certainly far more likely areas than the mountainous Adirondacks and/or northern Appalachians.

    Every introduction of Elk by private interests, etc. met with failure….read the tea leaves !!

    • John Warren says:

      Where does it say that there were more than “some” elk in the Adirondacks”?

      I’ll wait, while you take your medicine.

  5. AG says:

    Yes and there were also buffalo… There were also plenty of wolves and cougars to hunt them all.. Then came the Europeans. As to the issue about disease with a reintroduction – that is a weak excuse. They can source from populations without any trace. Fact is the human population of upstate NY keeps shrinking… Bring back more large animals.

    • Boreas says:

      AG,

      As cool as it would be to see another ungulate in the NE, I agree we need to make sure they have larger predators (wolves) to control what we have now and any new species. Probably shouldn’t introduce one without the other.

      • AG says:

        True… But both species could return on their own if they weren’t prevented. The elk in PA could migrate if they were allowed. Wolves from canada try to get back into the US but get shot before they reach the border. Then some do get through and get killed because someone thought it was a big coyote.

  6. Charlie S says:

    Elk in the Adirondacks
    > The NY Sun Tuesday July 19,1887 The NY State Forest Commission hope eventually to breed moose and elk in the Adirondacks. The chief drawback to the success of the undertaking is the slack way in which the game laws are enforced. Deer in the Adirondacks are slaughtered with knives in parks when the crust on the snow prevents their traveling and no one makes a fuss about it. The game constables pass their time at the village hotels telling fish stories. Townsend Cox, of the Forest Commission, hopes that he can change all this by getting authority to license guides, making them officers of the state without pay, but providing for their remuneration by keeping lists of them where sportsmen wishing to go into the woods are apt to congregate and at an office to be opened for their benefit in this city.

    > The NY Sun August 20,1902 The State Game Commission recently released another moose at Bug Lake. A male calf is being kept in a cage in the vicinity of Old Forge until such time as it is hardy enough to be released. Seven moose and twenty-one elk have been released in the Adirondacks so far. The Browns Tract Guides’ Association will liberate five more elk in September.

    > Buffalo Express September 9,1903 Three of the five elk liberated in the Fulton Chain region last year have been found killed by deer hunters. The three were found in one spot at First Lake. The elk had been liberated by the Brown’s Tract Guide Association. They had wintered well, and had become quite tame. The legislature passed a special act for their protection. The penalty for killing one is a fine of $100. and imprisonment. Some of the guides are running down the men who shot the elk.

    > The Buffalo Commercial September 10,1903 Two carloads of elk from Wyoming, comprising a herd of 43 animals, have been delivered at Paul Smith’s and will be turned loose in the immense forest preserve of 40,000 acres owned by Paul Smith from a friend in California. William C. Whitney of New York has notified Dr. F. E. Kendall of Saranac Lake that he is about to ship him a carload of elk to be distributed about the Adirondacks wherever he finds places for them. Dr. Kendall has been active in agitating the question of restocking the forest with big game. He has decided to release some of the elk on the state road just above the new state bridge near Saranac Lake.

    > New York Times January 30,1906 Harry Radford wrote a letter to the NY Times on this date. The heading to this letter is thus: “Who wants 25 elk? Fine herd for Adirondacks if any one will pay transportation.”
    Here is an edited version of this man’s letter to the editor: The elk which have been liberated in the Adirondacks during the past five years have done well, and the State Forest, Fish, and Game Commission in its last report places the number of wild elk in the Adirondacks at 200, as against 22 in 1901. The experience of the past few winters has shown that the elk withstand deep snow and severe cold even better than the Adirondack deer.

    > The Buffalo Commercial March 20,1906 It is announced here that 17 wild elk have been released in the Adirondack forest preserve. The elk are the gift of Austin Corbin of New York and were brought from his Blue Mountain forest park in New Hampshire by Harry V. Radford. They were given into the custody of State Game Protector Charles Barnes and released at Newcomb, Essex County.

    ………………………………………………………………………………………..

    I figured this information might be of interest to some regards elk in the Adirondacks.As late as October 18,1943 a 500 lb bull elk was killed in St. Lawrence County and had an antler spread of more than four feet. There are many other reports between the early 1900’s and this later date.

  7. The Adirondacks are mentioned three times in this piece:

    1) In the title – Remembering Elk Herds in the Adirondacks – admittedly, this could leave “title readers” to believe that there were massive herds of elk in the Adirondacks, but that is not what it says, nor what the article says. If there were elk in the Adirondacks, then there were elk herds.

    2) “Adaptable to a variety of habitats, elk were found in the Adirondacks, and in most ecosystems…” says nothing about large numbers of elk, only that they existed at some point in the Adirondacks. This is also clearly true.

    3) “The few remaining in the Adirondacks, along the North Branch of the Saranac River, were dispatched in 1826.”

    There are multiple references to Elk in the Adirondack in the 19th century beyond what Charlie S identified in his comments above. A simple Google search will turn these up. Clinton Hart Merriam, in Vertebrates of the Adirondack Region, Vol. 1 (1882) for example, says:

    “That American Elk or Wapiti (Cervus Canadensis) was at one time common in the Adirondacks there is no question. A number of their antlers have been discovered…”

    He goes on to list specimens from the Fulton Chain, the Raquette River, on Grand Isle, in St. Lawrence County, Lewis, and two that were killed on the north branch of the Saranac (in 1836, I made the date correction in the text above).

    So despite the straw man arguments made by its detractors, this article is in fact accurate.

  8. Phil Terrie says:

    John, you cite C. Hart Merriam and his book The Mammals of the Adirondack Region. Hmm. Merriam reports that a “Mr. Beach, an intelligent hunter on the Raquet, assured me that in 1836 he shot at a stag (or as he called it an elk) on the north branch of the Saranac.… His account was confirmed by another hunter Vaughn, who killed a stag at nearly the same place.” On the next page, Merriam writes, “I do not regard the above account of Mssrs. Beach and Vaughn as trustworthy, for the reason that I have never been able to find a hunter in this wilderness, however aged, who had ever heard of a living elk in the Adirondacks.” Of the small handful of elk that Merriam cites in northern NY, not a single one, other than those claimed by Beech and Vaughn, which Merriam dismisses as not credible, was found inside the blue line.

    • John Warren says:

      Hi Phil,

      I think you’ve misinterpreted Merriam’s statements. He clearly says “That American Elk or Wapiti (Cervus Canadensis) was at one time common in the Adirondacks there is no question. A number of their antlers have been discovered…” (page 143), and on (page 145) says “When the species was exterminated here is not known”.

      He offers no real evidence to discount the 1842 account of Beach and Vaughn’s killings on the North Branch Saranac, only saying: “I do not regard the above account of of Messrs. Beach and Vaughn as trustworthy, for reason that I have never been able to find a hunter in this wilderness, however aged, who had ever heard of a living Elk in the Adirondacks.”

      Merriam is writing more than 40 years after the last elk was said to have been killed, so it is no surprise that he couldn’t find a hunter who knew of a living one. That there was none living in 1882, does not of course mean that they were not once “common” as Merriam himself believed, citing “a number of their antlers [that] have been discovered.”

      I haven’t looked, because I didn’t write this piece, but I suspect the State Museum has specimens from archeological digs at Native American sites among others. The Museum does have an elk on display in its Adirondacks exhibit, and Merriam also cites one found in a bog in the Fulton Chain.

      For those interested, the book Phil and I are referring to is available online here: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.13792251;view=1up;seq=150

      • Boreas says:

        If I have my facts straight, the word Wapiti was a Shawnee term for elk. The Shawnee nation were roughly centered in a large area around the Ohio Valley. So I think it would be safe to assume that elk were reasonably common in that area, which isn’t a great distance from NYS. Considering elk are a highly migratory species, it isn’t difficult to assume some regularly made it into the NE – especially when the homesteaders started moving west and displacing them in all directions.

        Elk out west tend to migrate from summer to winter – often long distances. The summer is often spent in more remote, wooded areas where their offspring are often safer from predation. But as winter approaches, they tend to herd up in yards similar to deer for better availability of food and less expenditure of energy getting it. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising for elk to use the more remote NE forests in summer then migrating to other areas to overwinter. Exactly where and when this happened would have depended on many factors, and likely went in cycles as population cycles typically do. Perhaps small populations were drawn back to the NE because of the lack of large predators after they were largely exterminated. It would be fascinating to find out more about elk and bison populations and their decline east of the plains.

      • Phil Terrie says:

        I haven’t misinterpreted anything (at least not in this discussion).

        The title of the original article is “Remembering Elk Herds in the Adirondacks.” And the first sentence reads thus: “Hundreds of years ago, haunting bugle-like calls echoed through these hills and valleys.” Any reasonably competent reader would conclude that this article argues that elk thrived throughout the Adirondacks, among other places, in large numbers. I don’t think they did.

        I never said that no elk ever set a hoof in the Adirondacks. In fact, I allowed as how they may well have done so. Who knows what odd beasts have a wandered through our Adirondacks over the centuries? But were the Adirondacks home to herds of elk, as the Almanack piece clearly suggests? I think the answer to that question is No.

        James DeKay, who wrote the earliest survey of all mammals in New York State for the Natural History Survey (1836-42), was Merriam’s source for the claims by Beech and Vaughn. Merriam quoted DeKay verbatim and had nothing further to add for the Adks.

        All the sources I can find that discuss eastern elk assert that elk were killed off by early European settlers. The central Adirondacks were first settled in the 1820s and 1830s. If there were elk in the Adirondacks at that time, why is there no mention of them? We have surveyors’ diaries, early sporting narratives, settlers’ accounts, descriptions of the Adirondacks written by cartographers. Nowhere do we find mention of elk. We do find mention of moose, deer, bears, wolves, cougars–in short all the large mammals that we think of when we contemplate the early history of the Adirondacks. Other than the elk claimed by Beech and Vaughn (reported as hearsay by DeKay and then re-reported but not credited by Merriam) we don’t have a single bit of evidence for elk living inside what is now the Adirondack Park.

        The dense, closed-canopy forest of the central Adirondacks was simply not good elk habitat. The Saint Lawrence Valley and the other lowlands surrounding the Adirondack plateau undoubtedly supported elk, especially where various Native American cultures used fire to promote the wildlife found in edge environments and to open up clearings for agriculture. And some of these may have occasionally wondered to the interior. That is not the same thing as “herds.”

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