Where's the Elk?

Lewis and Clark saw not one elk when they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains. Their Nez Perce guides knew where to find them though, and spoke knowledgeably of elk being plentiful "in the valley about the Fishery" (June 27, 1806). But the "fishery" was on the Lochsa River, 3,500 feet down the same treacherous slope where Clark's desk had perished the previous fall because it was too steep for the packhorses to keep their footing. Elk were in the neighborhood, just not that easy to get to.

Elk Pictograph

pictograph of elk

Photo © 2004 Warren Miller

Indian pictograph of an elk is still faintly visible on a remote rock wall in the Snake River Canyon. Elk bone fragments have been documented during excavations of ancient hunting camps along the Lochsa River.

For today's traveler to Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains, seeing an elk1 is still a gamble. But hunters don't give up; every fall, they pester locals with the same question, "Where's the elk?"2 Even though a backcountry elk hunt today might include the same hardships endured by the Corps of Discovery in 1805—unpredictable freezing weather, endless daily toil, and exhaustingly steep terrain—the mystique of these shaggy beasts, whose bugles and barks send eerie music through remote mountain valleys, draws sportsmen back to Idaho every year.

For elk, too, life in the mountains requires energy and stamina, but they seem to be built for it. They practically melt into dense underbrush or speed effortlessly up steep mountain slopes, even bulls bearing 30 pounds of spiky antlers. But in deep snow, even the tallest and strongest elk struggles and may die; its muscular body stalled, unable to get to the next nutritious shrub.

Lochsa elk face winter by leaving summer grazing grounds high in the mountains and gathering along the Lochsa and Middle Fork Clearwater Rivers where snow is usually shallow, temperatures mild. But in years past, when deep snows have accumulated in this low elevation winter range, hundreds of Lochsa elk have died there of starvation.

Unpredictable weather and steep terrain aren't the only reasons for the Lochsa elk herd's disappearing acts. In the 200 years since Lewis and Clark (elk have been in these mountains much longer), this herd's rises and falls have been tied to a history of curiously related events: a gold rush, a World War, large forest fires, and early experiments in game conservation.

A Rush for Gold . . . A Rush to Save Elk

In 1860 a gold rush brought crowds of hopeful miners to Pierce, Idaho, near Weippe Prairie. The hungry prospectors took so much wildlife that one settler reported seeing no elk there between 1861 and 1930.3 Elk had already suffered losses on the Plains during the early 1800s, where they were freely killed for meat, hides or even a pair of unique ivory teeth.

Theodore Roosevelt spoke out against the slaughter of game animals. The state of Idaho legislated hunting regulations and set aside game preserves; 1919 saw more than 150,000 acres declared off limits to elk hunting in the Selway and Clearwater Game Preserves. Wolves, cougars and bears nearly disappeared under bounty programs. In 1903, Montana made 4,000 payments for wolves and pups at $5 each.4

The Lochsa elk herd grew. When large lightning fires burned the forests along K'useyneiskit between1910 and 1934, thousands of acres once shaded by firs and pines were temporarily transformed into open, sunny slopes covered with palatable shrubs, grasses and forbs. The protected elk had plenty to eat.

By1935 Idaho lifted hunting restrictions in the Game Preserves. The frenzy of renewed elk hunting was a heyday, according to Lochsa historian Bud Moore; it ended when hunters left the country to be soldiers in World War II.5 When the men came home elk were thick in the Idaho Mountains—1948 is famous as a peak year for Lochsa elk. At a game check station on Lolo Pass, 1,962 hunters declared over 700 elk taken from the Lochsa country; a second check station near Kooskia reported similar counts.

So many elk!

Biologists from Idaho Fish and Game and land managers from the U.S. Forest Service worried about the large numbers of elk. How long could the limited winter range provide enough browse? The agencies joined forces to inspect the winter range, count hunter kills, issue more hunting tags—and bait the elk in spring to lure them back to the mountains and off the overgrazed winter range.

For about 10 years, 50-pound blocks of salt were hauled into the Lochsa and Selway high country by packstrings and dropped from cargo planes called Ford Trimotors (sold by Ford Motor Company). In 1947 Idaho Fish and Game put out 235 tons of salt. But University of Idaho graduate students found that while elk were attracted to the salt, it did not alter their seasonal migration to the degree hoped for.6

Sadly, the year 1948 is remembered for its severe winter and resulting die-off for the Lochsa elk herd. Freezing temperatures and deep snow took their toll. During the spring of 1949, game biologists witnessed carcasses of dead elk, floating down the Lochsa River.7

Where's the Elk?

The Lochsa elk herd is remarkable for the ambitious and expensive programs undertaken to make sure there are "enough" elk. Game managers and governments use laws to increase elk if there were "too few," or conduct studies and launch programs if "too many." But today's herd declines, and no one agrees why. Hunting seasons are adjusted, forest fires allowed to burn, studies undertaken to probe causes of calf mortality. Sportsmen scrutinize results of winter elk counts (conducted from helicoptors), praying for recovery and more tags.

But none of these efforts have been able to work in synch with the combined power of the Lochsa's own erratic and sometimes forceful nature and the incessant movements and actions of people who live, develop, and drive through the winter range.

In 1962, Idaho Highway 12 was completed along the Lochsa River. Suddenly, the wild country between Travelers' Rest near Lolo, Montana, and Camp Chopunnish, near Kamiah, Idaho, could be crossed in mere hours. Today, hunters follow this road in pickups each fall, coming from all over to get their Idaho backcountry elk experience. Off the pickups come smaller vehicles, built for branching off the main routes and into the deepest corners of wild elk country. If this once-famous herd is disappearing, everyone wants one of the last ones.

Humans have traveled across the continent, contrived large-scale rescue operations, and combed remote mountain valleys for this elusive game animal—and continue to wonder, where's the elk?

Sources

Paul Dalke et al., "Use of salt by elk in Idaho," Journal of Wildlife Management 29:2 (April, 1965).

Bud Moore, The Lochsa Story: Land Ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1996.

Jim Peek, "Wapiti Cervus elaphus" in G.A. Feldhamer, B.C. Thompson and J.A. Chapman, Wild Mammals of North America. 2nd edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 2003.

Ralph Space, The Clearwater Story: A History of the Clearwater National Forest. Orofino, Idaho: USDA-FS R1-79-03, 1979.

James Peek, University of Idaho, Moscow. Personal Interview. June 2004.

Shawn J. Riley, "Dymanics of early wolf and cougar eradication efforts in Montana: implications for conservation," in press, January 2004 (Science Direct http://www.sciencedirect.com/, June 15, 2004).

Lee Sappington, Archeologist, University of Idaho, Moscow. Personal Interview. September, 2004.


1. Elk, Cervus elaphus (SIR-vuss ELL-a-fuss; "deer," "large"). Rocky Mountain elk can weigh 1,000 pounds and stand five feet tall at the shoulder.

2. The author heard this question every fall for 15 years when she worked in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness as a Forest Service Wilderness Ranger.

3. Ralph Space, The Clearwater Story (Orofino, Idaho: USDA-FS, 1979), 121.

4. Shawn J. Riley, "Dynamics of early wolf and cougar eradication efforts in Montana: implications for conservation," in press, January 2004 (Science Direct http://www.sciencedirect.com/, June 15, 2004), 2. Idaho made similar payments but reports of numbers of predators killed in Idaho are not clear.

5. Bud Moore, The Lochsa Story: Land Ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press, 1996), 242.

6. Paul Dalke et al., "Use of salt by elk in Idaho," Journal of Wildlife Management 29:2 (April, 1965), 319-322.

7. James Peek, University of Idaho, Moscow. Personal interview, June 12, 2004.

Supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee