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.