Our Noblest Deer, Page 2

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When I reached North Dakota in 1887 there were still a few scattered elk in the Turtle Mountains and a few along the timbered bottomlands of the Upper Missouri and the Yellowstone Rivers, but these did not last long. By 1893, on my next trip into Montana and Wyoming, most of those in the valleys and open country had been killed or driven back into the higher lands. From the mountains a few still wandered down the Yellowstone Valley as far as Billings and along the edges of the Big-horn, Wind River and Green River valleys to escape the deep snows of winter. But already the cattle and ranches were occupying the haylands and willow thickets in the bottoms of these mild and semiarid valleys.

Now this fertile valley land is fully occupied by ranches, and all of the forage is used for stock. Driven back from their former summer range, the elk have climbed higher and higher into the mountains, to protected areas national parks, national forests, game refuges, even to wind swept ridges above timberline for their summer homes, while in winter many descend to foothill slopes and the higher and colder basins above the settlements. They were always migratory but now their migrations are blocked by settlements, and they are cut off from any suitable winter food supply.


The Indian with his bow and arrow had hunted elk for untold ages without depleting their numbers, but before the rifle of the white man they rapidly disappeared. Over most of the country they were slaughtered ahead of the advancing settlements from the Atlantic in 1535 to the Rocky Mountains in 1900. At the same time other herds of other varieties were being destroyed in the south and west. Now at least two of the well-marked subspecies, the eastern elk, Cervus canadensis canadensis, and the Arizona elk, Cervus canadensis merriami, are extinct, and two others, the tule elk, Cervus canadensis nannodes of California, and the Manitoba elk, Cervus canadensis manitobensis, have come close to the verge of extinction. The two remaining forms, the Olympic elk, Cervus canadensis roosevelti of the Pacific Coast Region, and the Rocky Mountain elk, Cervus canadensis nelsoni, still occupy a part of their original range in considerable numbers and can be permanently maintained if intelligently provided for.

The old days of living on game are gone forever; the romantic glamour of invading the wilderness and living on what Nature provides is a thing of the past. Few of the pioneers of America are now living. We can well pause to look back at the thrilling past, and forward to try to visualize what the future will hold for those who come after us. If we plan wisely it may still hold much of the interest and charm of life that helped to carry our fathers across the continent and into every remote corner of the country.

In the management of any animals a thorough knowledge of their habits, dispositions, physical needs, diseases and relationship to man and other animals is necessary. Elk have been studied and written about for three or four centuries in this country, but our naturalists are still learning important facts about our remaining herds, their seasonal food habits, their local migration routes and seasonal movements, and their fighting, breeding and mating customs. A large book could be written on their everyday and yearlong manners of life.

In summer, the chief business of a bull elk is raising a pair of huge antlers. With these, by sheer strength and courage, he fights his way to the head of a harem of ten or twenty or more cows, passing on his superior strength and courage to a few generations of elk calves and then giving place to younger and more powerful bulls in the prime of life. With well-polished antlers, tested on many a tough sapling, with heavily maned and swollen neck, the old bull in September bugles forth his challenge to all who dare to come and fight, to test their strength and skill and courage; and only those with equal courage reply to the challenge. Fierce encounters take place and the victors gain in confidence and in the favor of their fair followers as the vanquished ones are forced to their knees and then driven well out of the herd. No weaklings are allowed to pass on their characteristics to the coming generation, but another year the strength and courage of some of these vanquished bulls may pass the high test for victory. They will wait and in March will cast aside the old weapons of warfare and begin a pair of new antlers that will take much of their blood and energy through the long, idle summer. The choicest of foods are sought above timberline on the mountain heights: juicy clovers and lupines, tender young grasses and a host of flowering plants. Great snow banks and sparkling rills help to cool the fever of their soft, velvet-coated, growing antlers, and help to keep away the tormenting insects of the lower levels. All fights and feuds are forgotten, as old and young bulls gather in friendly bands while the cows with lusty calves feed together in nearby flowery meadows. This is the happy, growing time of year, the season of safety, comfort and abundance.

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