Roosevelt Elk

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by Greg Tollefson

On November 24, after enduring two weeks of stormy weather with insufficient food and deteriorating clothes, the captains weighed the evidence, took a vote, and set out for the south side of the Columbia to find a place for their winter camp. Recording what local residents told him, Clark wrote:

They general agree that the most Elk is on the opposit Shore. . . . The Elk being an animal much larger than deer, easier to kill, better meat (in the winter when pore) and Skins better for the Clothes of our party.

Of the 375 elk the journalists recorded as having been killed during the entire expedition, one-third were bagged near Fort Clatsop between November 17, 1805 and March 23, 1806. These animals were important to them not only for meat but for hides, to replace worn-out clothing and moccasins.

Fort Clatsop's location was chosen in part because, as some Clatsop Indians had advised the captains, there were more elk on the south side of the river than on the north. Expedition members killed their first elk west of the Rocky Mountains on December 2, 1805, at the mouth of Columbia. That winter, between November 27, 1805, and March 23, 1806, expedition members reportedly killed about 130 more.

Elk once roamed throughout the continental United States, but by the end of the 18th century they had been forced out of eastern regions. The Corps encountered their first elk in the western part of the present state of Missouri, and killed their last one, en route home, near today's Kansas City. Today elk are found throughout the Rocky Mountains, as well as in Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and several other eastern states.

In 1898 the American biologist C. Hart Merriam first described the elk found in the coastal rain forest. He identified it as a subspecies, and named it in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, who was an accomplished amateur naturalist and ardent conservationist.