Monday, July 27, 2015

Patrick Moore Is Wrong (The Science Is In)

"Global Warming" by Fernando Agudelo
There is a deceptive, disingenuous video circulating the cyber world called "What They Haven't Told You About Climate Change" produced by Prager University, a nonprofit organization that claims to offer "knowledge and clarity on life's biggest topics at no cost" through "awesome five minute videos" from a "conservative perspective." Even their name is deceptive. "We are not an accredited academic institution," reads the disclaimer on their website, "and we don't want to be." The so-called “University” was created by nationally syndicated conservative talk radio show host Dennis Prager. Their recently-released climate change video features Patrick Moore, who left Greenpeace years ago to become a paid spokesman for corporate polluters and is now a consultant for the nuclear and fossil fuel energy industry. In a excruciatingly monotone voice and tedious manner, he seems to be reading from scripted cue-cards that just might as well have been provided by the Koch brothers.

He does bring up an interesting analogy: Climate change deniers are, indeed, similar to those who deny the Holocaust – they all ignore overwhelming evidence and fabricate their own crazy “truths.” They are no different from those who claim cigarettes aren’t really bad for you. In fact, many of the people now paid by the fossil fuel industry to spread climate-change denial were once paid by tobacco companies to discredit and refute the overwhelming scientific evidence about the toxic dangers of smoking.  

There exists a well-funded, highly-complex, fairly coordinated "denial machine" made up of pseudo scientists, fossil fuels corporations, conservative think tanks, politicians and various front groups fighting against what they perceive as a threat to a western social order built by industrial capitalism powered by fossil fuels. They specialize in manufacturing conspiracies, hoaxes, skepticism, uncertainty and doubt. They attack good, sound science. They lie.

Prager University and Patrick Moore are part of that propaganda machine. 

Moore says our climate has changed before. He is correct. He is incorrect in claiming we don’t understand why those changes occurred. We do.

Thanks to what we collectively call “science,” here is what we know: Carbon Dioxide (C02) and methane were involved in all of Earth’s past changes in climate. When they were reduced, global climate became colder. When they were increased, global climate became warmer. When C02 levels jumped rapidly, the global warming that resulted was highly disruptive and sometimes caused mass extinctions. Humans today are emitting prodigious quantities of C02 at a rate faster than even the most destructive climate changes in earth's past.

Most living organisms have time to adapt and change along with gradual changes in climate; most living organism do not have time to adapt and change to abrupt changes – changes like we are seeing today.

Life flourished in the Eocene, the Cretaceous and other times of high C02 in the atmosphere because greenhouse gasses were in balance with carbon in the oceans and the weathering of rocks. Life, ocean chemistry, and atmospheric gasses had millions of years to adjust to those levels. But there have been several times in Earth’s past when temperatures jumped abruptly, in much the same way as they are doing today. Those times were caused by large and rapid greenhouse gas emissions, just like humans are causing today. Those abrupt global warming events were almost always highly destructive for life, causing mass extinctions. The symptoms from those events (big, rapid jumps in global temperatures, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification) are all happening today with human-caused climate change.

So yes, Moore is absolutely right: Our climate changed before, even before humans came along, but scientists know why. In all cases we see the same association between C02 levels and global temperatures. Past examples of rapid carbon emissions (just like today) were highly destructive to life on Earth.

Moore also says there is no correlation between atmospheric C02 levels and changes in Earth’s temperatures. He is wrong. They fit like pieces of a puzzle; a puzzle that an overwhelming majority of the world’s top scientists are collectively putting together.   

Thanks to science, here are a few other things we know about past changes in Earth’s climate that Moore failed to mention: Sudden releases of freshwater from glacial lakes can rapidly modifying the surface circulation in the North Atlantic and the climate of adjacent regions. Massive volcanoes can have similar affects. The oscillation between glacial and warm conditions can also result from periodic and predictable changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun. These changes influence the seasonal distribution of solar radiation and can potentially cause abrupt changes in El NiƱo, monsoons and the global atmospheric circulation. Scientists also hypothesize that abrupt changes in climate can result from “crossing thresholds,” such as when fresh water from melting ice rapidly flushes into the North Atlantic, shutting down ocean thermohaline circulation that influences climate with regional and global consequences.

What is ocean thermohaline circulation?  It is something we have come to understand though science. Driven by the sun's heat absorbed by tropical oceans and impacted by variations in salt content in the water, thermohaline circulation is a powerful force on the world's climate system. It’s conveyer belts of currents, moving water of various temperatures around the planet that influence regional and global climate. 

As heat from the tropics is carried by the Gulf Stream into the North Atlantic where it is vented into the atmosphere, a deep convection of ocean waters is caused by surface cooling, with the flow of water then sinking to depths and then upwelling back to the surface at lower latitudes – making some parts of our planet colder or warmer than other parts. Some places are cold enough to freeze water into glaciers and icecaps. (Glaciers store about 69% of the world's freshwater. If all land ice melted our seas would rise about 230 feet. During the last ice age -- when glaciers covered more land area than today -- the sea level was about 400 feet lower than it is today. At that time, glaciers covered almost one-third of the land. During the last warm spell, 125,000 years ago, seas were about 18 feet higher than they are today. About three million years ago the seas could have been up to 165 feet higher.)  Frozen water releases salt, and thus when it melts it is salt-free. This factor and the heavier density of salty water is particularly important in polar regions where the convergence of fresh and saline waters influences ocean currents. In other words, when the frozen waters melt, not only do sea levels rise, but the world’s “conveyer belts” of currents change, slow down, perhaps stop and thus regional and global climates also change.   

Ocean thermohaline circulation is dynamic and has been known to dramatically shift, as it appears to have done just after the last Ice Age and perhaps during episodes of abrupt climate change. Shifts in the thermophile circulation’s  "conveyor belts" of ocean currents can cause major changes in climate over relatively short-time scales (10-20 years) which in turn can have enormous impacts.

Because massive human-induced releases of C02 and other greenhouse gasses are warming our planet and melting glaciers and polar ice caps, understanding the thermohaline circulation has become a major focus for scientists who conduct climate research. Here is what they have thus far discovered and accurately predicted: Thermohaline circulation is slowing down in as a result of greenhouse warming. The slowdown is occurring because the rapid melting of glaciers and icecaps is flushing freshwater into the North Atlantic making it less dense and less able to sink to depth.

In other words: The engine that runs the system is breaking down. We are breaking it. We can fix it, but some would rather deny the problem so as to protect greed and profit. They would rather kill the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs, so they perpetuate and disseminate deceptive lies, half-truths and misconceptions to an ignorant public that has little understanding of science. Most of them, like Patrick Moore, get paid to do so.

Moore says warming trends have leveled off. He is wrong.

Records show that the Earth has been warming at a steady rate and there is no sign of it slowing any time soon. Last year (2014) was the hottest year on record. The global temperature was 1.24°F above the long-term average, besting the previous record holders by 0.07°F.  Thirteen of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000. This is the 38th consecutive year with global temperatures above average. And that’s just surface temperature. Oceans give a much more alarming indication of the warming that is happening. More than 90% of global warming heat is absorbed by our oceans, while less than 3% goes into increasing the surface air temperature. Last year was the highest ocean temperatures on record, coming in at 1.09°F degrees above average. Oceans continue to warm, changing the currents that change temperatures that change regional and global climate.

Since global warming influences ocean currents that influence regional climates, this results in severe and record-breaking fluctuations in weather in various places – from unusually warm to unusually cold, at times, with more frequent extremes such as tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards. This is why, on an unusually cold and snowy February day in Washington DC, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma was able to throw a snowball on the Senate floor in an ignorant attempt to “prove” that human activity isn’t causing climate change. It’s also why Washington DC now experiences record-breaking heat most every summer, and why springtime in our nation’s capital is now, on average, seven degrees above the historical norm.

How do we know all this? Scientific data gathered through scientific research in accordance with rigorous standards of the scientific method and compiled by scientists into scientific reports that are scientifically peer-reviewed by other scientists who scrupulously and methodically try to find flaws in the works of their fellow scientists. Scientific theories, hypotheses and results are constantly challenged and tested over and over again until something is either disproved or, as is the case with human-caused climate change, an overwhelming consensus is reached. It would be impossible, yes impossible!, to bring together all the world's leading scientists to agree to a secretive plot. Climate change is not a hoax. The science is real.       

Moore says there is no consensus among scientists about human-caused climate change, that “the science is not in.”  He is wrong.   
  
In the scientific field of climate studies – which is informed by many different disciplines – the consensus is demonstrated by the number of scientists who have stopped arguing about what is causing climate change – and that’s nearly all of them.  A survey of 928 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subject of global climate change shows that not a single paper rejected the consensus position that global warming is man caused. A follow-up study of more than 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subjects of global warming and global climate change found that, of the papers taking a position on the cause of global warming, more than 97% agreed that humans are causing it.  The scientists who authored the research papers were also contacted and asked to rate their own reports, and again more than 97% who took a position on the cause said humans are causing global warming.

Several studies have confirmed that “The debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.”  In other words: More than 97% of scientists working in the disciplines that contribute to studies of our climate conclude that current climate change is being caused by human activities. There are no national or major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute the theory of human-caused climate change. Not one! Why do so many Americans believe a handful of paid corporate lackeys and right-wing politicians who manufacture conspiracies, hoaxes, skepticism, uncertainty and doubt instead of an overwhelming majority of the world's top scientists -- and the actual, growing evidence throughout our rapidly changing world that scientists have been predicting for years?  

It’s time to ignore dangerously ignorant corporate mouth-pieces like Patrick Moore -- people paid to fuel climate-change denial so as to protect greed and profit while diminishing the health of the planet that sustains us. It’s time to listen to the overwhelming majority of knowledgeable, informed scientists throughout the world who have reached near-unanimous consensus in regards to human-caused climate change. The science is in. It’s time we collectively move past denial towards acceptance and action.  

For more on climate change, please check out: "Our Wild World Unraveling: Thoughts on Climate Change from a Hunter, Fisherman and Backpacker," and
"A Bipartisan Call for Climate Action."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Spartan Camps: Hunting Elk Like a Force Recon Marine

Photo by Bob Knoebel
One October evening after chasing elk deep into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, I realized that the traditional elk camp had a major drawback. Several bulls, all bugling up a storm, had enticed and befuddled me the entire day. When legal shooting hours were over, I had to hike 10 steep, rugged, off-trail miles on a rainy, moonless night back to the stove, food, and little dome tent that comprised my elk camp. A Stellar’s jay could have winged the trip in minutes, but it took me five hours of slipping, falling, and cursing. I went to sleep late and woke late, then trekked all the way back to where I’d come from the evening before, hoping to catch another glimpse of those elk. I was spending enormous amounts of time and energy traveling to and from my camp each day that could be spent hunting. Then it occurred to me: Why not hunt as if I were on a reconnaissance patrol?

At the time I was fresh out of the Marines, where for several years I’d served in a Force Recon Company. Our job was to venture on lengthy four-man missions to gather information. “Travel Light, Freeze at Night,” was our unofficial motto. When snooping around in places you’re not welcome, you can’t risk detection. You don’t make noise, build fires, or cook food. You pack as little as possible, move carefully, and stay concealed. We would travel for days, even weeks, carrying only a rifle and a butt pack with ammo, a canteen, and a small supply of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). A rubber poncho with a thin, nylon liner served as bedding. When we rested, at least one person kept watch while the others huddled into a human ball covered with the liners and ponchos. It worked for military missions; why not elk hunting?

I set out on my next hunting trip wearing only a fanny pack containing a poncho, liner, and a few energy bars. I was determined to go wherever the elk took me and sleep wherever I ended up when darkness fell. With snow blowing in from the northwest, I spent the night on a treeless, windy ridge, where I learned a simple, harsh lesson: A solitary poncho and liner is not as warm as four and does little good without other warm bodies producing heat. I passed the night doing pushups, stomping my feet, and walking up and down the ridge to keep warm, all the while praying for the sun to rise. It wasn’t fun, but I survived. And when I heard elk bugling early the next morning , I was into them by first light.
Photo by Bob Knoebel

I liked the idea of carrying my camp on my back, with the freedom to follow elk anywhere and sleep anyplace. It was the “freeze at night” part that proved troublesome. Thus began my quest to develop the perfect Spartan, mobile elk camp. I ended up buying a narrow, fleece, Kevlar-frame backpack into which I pack a Gortex-shell down sleeping bag, rated to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The bag stuffs down smaller than a football and weighs just 3 pounds. I still carry the poncho—to keep me dry while hiking in rain, shelter me if needed, and, when I’m fortunate enough to bone out an elk, keep dirt off the meat. With the addition of a hunting knife, map, and compass, along with several energy bars, some jerky, a survival kit, and a fleece jacket, I’ve kept the pack to under 10 pounds. (For water I drink from springs.) The pack doesn’t slow me down and allows me to draw and shoot a bow with no discomfort.

With my lightweight, portable elk camp I’ve been able to spend nights in remote places where I’ve had unforgettable experiences. One night I awoke to what sounded like a pack string of horses clambering up a rocky trail. I watched in the dark as a herd of elk passed only a few yards from where I lay, oblivious to my presence. Another time I woke to see a black bear, perhaps 30 yards away, looking at me curiously. Early one morning I found mountain lion tracks in fresh snow less than 50 feet from my bag. Another time I slept in a grassy avalanche chute, waking up several times to the symphony of bulls and seeing their dark silhouettes under the full moon.

Photo by Bob Knoebel
I have been fortunate to kill 25 elk using my Spartan camp method. When I kill one and work late into the evening boning it out, I can spend the night nearby (though a safe distance away in case of bears). Then I’m ready first thing in the morning to finish butchering, hang the meat under a spruce or alpine fir (to keep it cool, out of the sun, and away from scavengers), and take my first load out.

My portable elk camp isn’t perfect. I’m often hungry and sometimes lonely. Occasionally bad weather has made me wish I carried more gear. There’s a lot to be said for the camaraderie of other hunters and the warmth of a wood-heated wall tent. But most nights I’ve been comfortable enough to get some decent rest. Those times when the temperature plummets or heavy snow rolls in, I’ve been able to retreat to the trailhead and my car. A few times when hunting far into the backcountry, I’ve set up an “emergency” tent with supplies in a central location I can reach if the weather turns especially nasty.

As for loneliness, it’s worth being able to hunt where I want, when I want. I can roam the landscape without the nagging feeling that I have to be back at camp by a certain time. With elk camp on my back, I feel as wild, free, and as close to a natural predator as a person can possibly feel. I’ll take that experience over a cozy night’s sleep any day.

Note: This story was originally featured in the September-October 2011 issue of Montana Outdoors.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Knapweed is Ironic (Enjoy the Honey)

Photo by Dave Stalling
It's invasive, noxious and obnoxious. Yet it's pretty.

It makes for good honey, thanks to the ironic work of a declining species whose habitat it is harming because it displaces various nectar-producing natives that collectively, each in it's own time, flower from early spring until the first snows hit. Or at least when the first snows used to hit, more often than they do now within our warming world.

More irony: Our impacts to the earth exasperate the invasion of these non-native, drought-loving plants that thrive in soils recently disturbed by events such as floods, avalanches, off-trail "all-terrain" recreational vehicles, and wildfires -- events occuring more frequently and with more intensity than they historically did as the climate we are altering with greedy indulgence continues to change.

These foreign plants have negative, sometimes severe, consequences to our native flora and fauna which other native species evolved with and rely on -- including all the clean air, clean water, wild places and wild animals we enjoy and depend on for various reasons. 

And it's from Russia!

Having served during Reagan's cold-war years, the plant's nationality evokes a sad sort of sinister, evil-empire bias ironically twisted among guilty feelings related to the unfortunate fact that my "distaste for Russia" gullibility is still alive and mentally active.

The plant is waging psychological warfare.   

It's the rhizomatous perennial's version of the black widow. Yet it doesn't poison us, as could the spider, but instead it helps us kill ourselves. It's a vegetative form of the canary in the coal mine. Only it doesn't just offer us a pretty warning; it's thrives in our self-destructiveness.

Knapweed is ironic.  

Enjoy the honey.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reoccurring Storms

I sometimes let myself have a day or so of depression, away from Cory of course, and face the storm in my head and try to at least calm it. Then I think how happy he is, how much he loves me and needs me, and how much I need and love him. I am so damned proud of him. He's an amazing young man.

It's not fair.

There was a time I retreated from it a bit; I disappeared into some bad, self-destructive escapes. That really was not fair to Cory.  Fortunately it was an unfairness I could do something about. I bounced back and I give it my best.

Tonight the storm returned; the raging head torment of "What could have been?"

This week a very close friend and former Marine comrade came to visit. We moved to Montana together out of the service and spent much of our time wandering remote, wild places year-round, for many years, taking long treks that were rigorously tough for us even back then in our late 20s fresh out of Force Recon. He has a son a few years older than Cory. They are as close as I think friends can be considering that he lives in Alabama. He is really sweet to Cory and Cory really looks up to him. Cory asks him a lot of questions about soccer and the South and southern food and whether or not he had a girlfriend or has danced with any girls. We spent a nice day on a wild river where Cory watched him swim to the other side, climb a cliff and jump off with his dad and me. I could tell Cory wished he could do it. I wish he could.

It's not fair.

My friend and his son headed out backpacking for a week. Cory used to go with me. He loved it. Until our trips grew more difficult for him, when he started falling a lot and cutting up his legs.  He never complained. He kept trudging. Once, we had to post-hole through deep snow to get over a pass and down to a lake of wild fish on the other side. Cory could not do it. His legs gave out rapidly. I said we should go back. He said no. I carried him through on my shoulders, when he was nearly too heavy to carry, which made the post-holing deeper and more difficult. I fell once and his face hit the snow so hard his lip was bleeding. I said we should turn back. He said no. I carried him the rest of the way, to where we dropped back down out of the snow. He caught and ate a lot of wild fish. We had a great time.

Last summer it became too much. We didn't make it far. It was the first time I ever carried a toilet seat with collapsible legs. But he needed it; he can't squat anymore. It reminds me of the last time he skied, before we knew but first started thinking something was wrong because his legs gave out quickly and he wanted to stop. He is losing interest. He's at the maybe phase with it. We might go again. Maybe. But I doubt it. At the age of 15 Cory has likely experienced his last backback trip.

It's not fair.

He says he'd rather camp near the car where's there's outhouses. I've always avoided such places, the places I call mild wild and defiled wild. The abstract wild. But I sure enjoy it with Cory . . . even while also sometimes wishing we were way back at no-name lake where the land has no trails -- except for those made by wild elk, moose and mountain goats.     

I thought about going with them, my friend and his son -- they were headed into country Jim and I used to roam back in the day. Way back. No trails. Thick north slopes of alder and menzesia brush. Tough bushwacking. Lakes with no names (and I mean it, really -- except for the names I give them, like "Dead Baby Goat Lake" and "Mad Moose Lake"-- but yes, I would call them no name even if they did.) Great fishing. No people. No judgement. It is what it is. It's wild. It's beautiful. It’s the real world. It’s life. Even in death.

I want Cory to know that; to experience what I've experienced.

It's not fair.

We got off to a great start. I started lugging him around the mountains before he could even walk -- the first time he couldn't walk, that is, at the age when most kids can't – with me carrying him on my back along with tent, sleeping bags, food, fishing rod and a stuffed animal or two. He got his own backpack as soon as he could walk, back when he walked and ran like most kids do. He has seen wild grizzlies and mountain goats, and wild elk and wolves, and wild black bear and moose. He has swam naked in wild rivers and lakes. He has put up with misquotoes and horse flies and rain and snow, cold and heat, and lightening and moons and stars. He has heard and felt the wild chilling music of wolves and loons. He has eaten wild elk and grouse, and wild trout and huckleberries. He can set up a tent and gather firewood, build a fire and catch and cook wild trout. He can tell the difference between a Doug fir and a "P" pine, and a black bear track and a grizzly track. He knows how to dismantle camp so nobody could ever know we were there, the only trace remaining in photos and our shared memories.

I watched Cory watch his friend pack for the adventure. I could tell it hurt. It hurt me.

But then we did other stuff, stuff he wanted to do. We floated and swam in wild rivers. I pushed him as far back as I could into the Rattlesnake in his wheelchair. We hung out at Barnes and Noble and talked about books and ideas. He is happy. I am happy when I am with him.

I try not to think too much into the future  . . . when the legs fully go, then the arms, then the heart and lung muscles. I try not to think about it.  

It's not fair.

Sometimes I finally, suddenly and unexpectedly write; It pours out with the tears.   

It’s 4:52 am. In three hours I need to get him up, cook him breakfast, make his lunch and get him ready for his first day at Improv Theater Camp. He loves theater. I'll probably go photograph wild things wild at camp. Later, we might go jump in a wild river. We'll both be happy.

Until late tomorrow night and into the wee hours of the morning.

It is what it is. It's wild. It's beautiful. It’s the real world. It’s life. Even in death.

It's not fair.




Monday, July 6, 2015

Silence Breaks Through


1:05 am:

So I am driving home stoned enough to be thinking about it when I also suddenly think about the irony of me wanting to put my seatbelt on -- not because I usually don't, but because usually I really don't. (For me that would be consistency, not irony.)

It was because the alarm was not going off. Nothing. Silence. There was no obnoxious "BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!" sound. And yet it should have been going off; it had every right to go off.

I hate it!

Yet now, now that the alarm was not going off, even though it should have been going off, and certainly had every right to go off . . . now, of all times, it was not going off.

Why
?

Would this be the night my head breaks the windshield, tonight of all nights, the one night I did not defy good advice?  I really should put the damn seatbelt on. I actually wanted to.

Hence the irony. Silence broke though.

But right about then, when I have that very thought, and just as I am about to put the damn seatbelt on, the obnoxious noise starts up.

"BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!"


So I stopped. I sensed a trap.  It was yelling at me again. Barking orders. I cautiously backed out. I defied it.

But what of the morning alarm?

“BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!”

Time to get back into the wilds for awhile. The silence breaks through.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Eastern Elk: Are They Really Extinct?


John James Audubon's Rendition of Eastern Elk, 1847
Traveling along Interstate 95 from Washington, D.C., through Philadelphia to New York and north to New England -- a giant megalopolis of steel, concrete and asphalt from the Capitol to Boston -- you can still observe flocks of ducks and geese in the fragmented salt marshes, bunches of white-tailed deer in the small woodlots and, if you stopped and walked along the rocky beaches, you might see schools of striped bass, bluefish or mackerel passing through on their annual migrations along the Atlantic coast. It is difficult, however, to imagine herds of bison and elk roaming through country now so heavily urban. But they did -- at least 300 years ago.

When Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into New York Bay in 1524, bison and elk may have ranged across most of the East, from Massachusetts to Louisiana. In 1609 explorer Henry Hudson reported seeing Indians clothed in robes and moccasins made of bison skins when he landed on a small, wild island now known as Manhattan. In his 1966 book, The Elk, naturalist John Madson wrote ". . . elk were probably the most widespread of all American hoofed species, thriving from central California to the Atlantic savannahs; from Mexico into Canada. About the only places not occupied originally by elk were the Great Basin (most of Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington), much of New England, eastern parts of the Atlantic coastal states, and sections of the deep South and Gulf Coast." Ernest Thompson Seton wrote extensively about North American elk during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In his seminal book, Lives of Game Animals, published in 1909, he cites explorers and trappers who recorded many sightings of elk in the East in the l6th, l7th and l8th centuries. He also describes their hasty extermination.

"There are few stories of blood lust more disgusting than that detailing the slaughter of the great Elk bands," Seton wrote. "The Deer of New England were killed off for the meat. But the wholesale massacre of the elk, like that of the Buffalo, was carried on for the joy of seeing the great creatures fall in dying agony; and, in later years, by tusk hunters who were too lazy to be hide hunters . . . The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the Wapiti perfectly described, catalogued, and started on the road to extermination. Thenceforth, travellers in Eastern America were obliged to record only the reminiscences of old settlers or the discovery of fossil horns and skulls."

In his Notes on the Mammals of Iowa, presented to the Boston Society of Natural History in 1871, J.A. Allen tells a fairly typical tale: "In the severer weather of winter they [elk] were often driven to seek shelter and food in the vicinity of the settlements. At such times the people not satisfied with killing enough for their present need, mercilessly engaged in an exterminating butchery. Rendered bold by their extremity, the elk were easily dispatched with such implements as axes and corn-knives, Now only a few linger where formerly thousands lived, and these are rapidly disappearing." 

Eastern elk, a subspecies believed to be extinct, were exterminated so quickly that it is difficult to determine their original range. The last few eastern elk probably holed up in isolated pockets of the northern Midwest, as Theodore Roosevelt wrote in Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, published in 1905: 

"Its numbers were soon greatly thinned, and about the beginning of the present century it disappeared from that portion of its former range lying south of the Great Lakes and between the Centaurs and the Mississippi. In the northern Alleghenies it held its own much longer, the last individual of which [have been] able to record having been killed in Pennsylvania in 1869. In the forests of northern Wisconsin, northern Michigan, and Minnesota wapiti existed still longer, and a very few individuals may still be found." 

When the final few elk fell among the oaks of central Minnesota in the late 1890s, a unique subspecies may have been silenced forever. But not all eastern elk disappeared because of European exploitation. Although there is evidence elk lived in Alabama, Delaware, Rhode Island, and the southwestern peninsula of Ontario, they were gone before European settlers arrived. In the March, 1926 issue of the Canadian Field Naturalist archeologist W.J. Wintemberg speculated on why elk may have disappeared in southwest Ontario.

"The extinction of the Wapiti, if caused by man, may have been due to either Iroquois Indian hunters, who came into the country from what is now New York State, after the dispersion of the Hurons, Tobacco Nation, Indians, and Neutrals (1649-1651), or to the Missisauga, who succeeded the Iroquois in the occupation of the country," Wintemberg wrote. "These later comers probably hunted with guns instead of the bows and arrows of the earlier Indians, and this may have led to the speedy extinction of the animal; at any rate, it appears to have disappeared from the country before the beginning of British settlement, late in the eighteenth century."

But ornithologist L.H. Smith, writing in The Ottawa Naturalist, July, 1901, offered a different view of how elk may have disappeared from Ontario:

"The first settlers came into the township of Adelaide in 1832. There were no elk here then, and I have never been able to glean any information from them about this great deer, although I have spoken to many. The most interesting information I have been able to get of this animal is from an Indian on the Kettle Point Reserve, in the county of Lambton . . . He was an elderly man when I spoke to him, perhaps between 60 and 70 years of age. He knows nothing of the elk himself, but his father used to tell him stories of shooting them in that part of the country when he was young ... How these great deer became extinct here will, perhaps, ever remain, to naturalists, a hidden secret. The Indian did not annihilate it because they never killed to extermination. If disease overtook them, as it sometimes does the great white hare of the far north, it is only reasonable to think that others would have come to replace the dead, or the few, if any, left would have increased again. We are quite in the dark concerning them. What we do know, is that the grandest of North American deer once roamed here, but it was before the white man came." 

Whether or not eastern elk were truly a distinct subspecies is a matter of debate. Ever since Swedish naturalist Carolus Lennaeus founded the modern system of classifying animals in the mid-l8th century, taxonomists have argued over just what exactly species and subspecies are. In general, animals evolve into different species and subspecies after becoming geographically isolated from others, adapting to their different environments, and changing over time through the process of natural selection. Tule elk in California, for example, have been isolated from other populations of elk for thousands of years. They have gradually evolved physical and behavioral adaptations that reflect their habitat and climate. They have significantly smaller bodies than all other elk, as well as longer rows of teeth and, perhaps, a unique ability to recycle nitrogen-all traits that allow them to not only live in extremely hot, arid country, but to actually flout the heat by rutting in July and August when temperatures are regularly 115 degrees. Some biologists classify tule elk as a separate subspecies because they are visibly different. Others say tules are genetically the same as elk found anywhere on the continent and differ only because of the environment they inhabit. If you took tule elk from the semideserts and tule marshes of California and move them to the high-country timber and meadows of Colorado, scientists say, they would grow large bodies just like the Rocky Mountain elk -- therefore they are not a different subspecies.

Former Eastern Elk and Probable Dates of Extinction
All that said, most elk biologists accept the existence of four subspecies currently living in North America and two considered extinct. After elk crossed the Bering land bridge more than a million years ago, entering North America from Siberia, they spread throughout most of Canada and the United States and went through two periods of isolation during which different subspecies may have evolved. The first, known as the Wisconsin glacial stage, lasted about 70,000 years. The second, following the glaciation, lasted about 10,000 years. The periods of isolation created four different populations: Roosevelt's elk along the northwest coast, tule elk in western and interior California, the now-extinct Merriam's elk of the Southwest and northern Mexico and another group, the largest, which roamed much of the United States and Canada east of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. This larger group may have been further isolated into three more groups when formation of the Great Plains divided the forests of the East from those of the West. The flat, open country of the plains, with its deep snow and cold winds, may have scattered the large herd as bands of elk split off and sought better forage and cover. One group, the Rocky Mountain subspecies, evolved in the western mountains. Another, the Manitoban, stuck it out on the plains. And eastern elk evolved in the hardwood forests. Whether these groups were truly isolated -- and, if so, isolated long enough to evolve into different subspecies -- may never be known.  

Elk of North America, edited by Jack Ward Thomas and Dale E. Toweill, states, "three of the six named subspecies of North American elk (Roosevelt's elk, Tule elk, and Merriam's elk) have met the basic criterion -- isolation -- necessary for the evolution of genetically distinct biological subspecies . . . Considering the available evidence, we do not think that the Eastern elk, Manitoban elk, and Rocky Mountain elk ever have been completely isolated from one another. We do think, however, that had the plains been allowed to continue their post-Wisconsin evolution, eventual isolation or near isolation of the elk populations might have occurred. It probably will never be known how well these three named subspecies of elk fitted the concept of biological subspecies."

If eastern elk were in fact different, few clues exist as to what may have distinguished them from other subspecies. Naturalist Vernon Bailey first split Rocky Mountain elk and eastern elk into separate subspecies in 1935, without having ever seen a single bone, antler or hide from an eastern elk. "At the time no existing specimen of elk from eastern North America was known to me," Bailey wrote in the Journal of Mammology, in 1937. "Hence my comparisons necessarily were based on incomplete descriptions by early writers and the excellent figure by Audubon in The Quadrupeds of North America." The figure Bailey refers to was drawn by John James Audubon around 1847 for the book he completed with Rev. John Bachman. As inspiration for his work, Audubon kept many live animals, including elk, on his private 30-acre estate called "Minnie's Land" (named for his wife) on the western shore of Manhattan, New York. "On our plate we have represented a pair of Elks in the foreground of a prairie scene, with a group of small figures in the distance; it gives but a faint idea of this animal in its wild and glorious prairie home," Bachman wrote of the painting, "The pair from which the figures on our plate were taken we purchased at Philadelphia: they had been caught when young in the western part of Pennsylvania; the male was supposed to be four or five years old, and the female was full grown. These Elks were transported from Philadelphia to our place near New York, and we had a capacious and high enclosure made for them."

A year after Bailey divided Rocky Mountain and eastern elk into different subspecies, he finally saw some physical evidence of eastern elk -- the skull, antlers and hide of a bull from Pennsylvania, killed in Potter County in 1853, and kept at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. "This is the only existing specimen of the eastern elk that I have been able to locate in any museum, or that might be considered at all typical of Cevuus canadensis canadensis [eastern elk] ," Bailey wrote. "This specimen indicates a smaller, more slender, and more brightly colored animal than C. c. nelsoni [Rocky Mountain elk] . The antlers are comparatively light, with slender beams and very long, slender prongs, just as Audubon portrayed them in his colored drawing. In addition the skull is relatively long and narrow, and in every way the specimen shows a striking resemblance to Audubon's figure of a bull elk from the western part of Pennsylvania."

Bones, skulls and antlers of eastern elk still occasionally appear -- records of what once roamed the hardwood forests preserved within the earth. In 1987, a man named Peter Mouradian II of West Allis, Wisconsin, found a set of 150 to 200 year-old eastern elk antlers in a peat bog near Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Public Museum later excavated the site and unearthed the bull's skull, several bones and some teeth.

But there may be more remaining of the eastern elk than old skeletons. In 1905, 18 elk were introduced to Fjordland National Park in New Zealand -- a gift from Theodore Roosevelt. The elk were survivors of an original shipment of 20, half of which came from Yellowstone National Park and half from a game reserve in Massachusetts owned by an Indian agent named H.E. Richardson. The latter are believed to be eastern elk captured in northern Minnesota by Native Americans. John A. Anderson, a New Zealander who has studied Fjordland elk since the early 1960s, says the possible eastern elk bloodline might explain some unusual characteristics he has seen in New Zealand elk, such as "bifurcated" antlers in which the dagger, or fourth point, forks at the tip. "Up until 1960 we all thought the elk introduced into New Zealand were Roosevelt's elk, simply because Theodore Roosevelt donated them," Anderson says. "Roosevelt's elk may have bifurcated antlers and everyone was happy to accept that this was why we were getting these antler characteristics in the Fjordland herd . . . If some of the wapiti shipped to New Zealand in 1905 were caught locally by Indians,' this sheds a whole new light on the evolution of the herd in Fjordland."

Eastern elk could have also hung on in the extensive forests of Ontario. While evidence is sketchy, numerous people reported seeing a band of elk near Sault Saint Marie on the Michigan/Ontario border in the early 1980s. These elk could be of eastern origin -- and could still exist in the wilds of Ontario.

In the early 1930s, game managers reintroduced 24 Rocky Mountain elk into Ontario from Alberta. A census taken 10 years later showed the herd had increased to 300. Too many elk in too short a time, biologists say, for all the offspring to have originated from two dozen Rocky Mountain elk. That's led many to believe a remnant population of eastern elk may still exist." Paul Di Biasy, a Pennsylvania writer who has researched the origin of New Zealand elk and has a passionate interest in eastern elk, is convinced that remnant populations of the subspecies still exist. "It can be proved historically," he says. "But it's going to be difficult to prove scientifically. A lot of scientific work, such as genetic testing, needs to be done."

If there does exist a pure strain of eastern elk -- if a distinction can be made -- I would like to see it isolated, propagated and returned to the East," Di Biasy says. "I would love to see the reestablishment of wild elk herds in the eastern United States. The elk certainly should be back on their native range and, if possible, they should be of the eastern subspecies." 

Note: This article was originally published in the Spring, 1994 issue of Bugle Magazine.