Once a massive herd that stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, the history of the Eastern Elk is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
Although we don’t know the original population of the Eastern Elk, it had to have been massive. When European settlers started colonizing the Americas, Eastern Elk could be found from Southern Canada to central Georgia and Louisiana, and as far west as the Mississippi River. Their numbers were great, their herds were huge, and they were a prized catch among Native Americans.
Even though their population was so great, the history of the Eastern Elk does not end well for the species.
Beginning of the End
As time progressed, and more settlers arrived, the elk’s habitat diminished and it was hunted more and more often. Unlike other large game animals in the area, such as bison and whitetail deer, the Eastern Elk was not overly fearful of humans. Herds did not move out of feeding grounds simply because a settlement was near by. Instead, they stayed where they were, which made them easy targets to provide food and warmth.
The numbers of Eastern Elk fell quickly and in 1737, the last sighting of an elk in South Carolina occurred. By 1850, it’s believed the whole population had been eliminated except for a few isolated herds in the Allegheny Mountains of north central Pennsylvania near Cameron, Elk and McKean counties.
And then in 1877, the last known wild Eastern Elk was killed by John D. Decker in Pennsylvania.
Anatomy of a Legend
The Eastern Elk was a large beast, significantly larger than the Rocky Mountain Elk we are used to seeing. It could weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds and stood five feet at the shoulder. Racks were easily six feet tall.
By the turn of the century, the area around Yellowstone was having the opposite issue. The Rocky Mountain Elk population was exploding, causing massive issues with settlements and farming. It didn’t look as though the environment could sustain a population so big. Around this same time, in 1895, the Pennsylvania Game Commission formed and started discussing the possibility of reintroducing an elk population in the state.
The two collaborated and in 1913, 50 elk were purchased at $30 a piece and transported from Yellowstone to central Pennsylvania on boxcars. Between then and 1926, 177 elk were released into 10 different counties across the Allegheny Mountains. Another 95 were from Yellowstone and the rest were procured from captive herds in the area.
For the last 100 years, Pennsylvania’s elk herd has been carefully managed to ensure it remains at a stable population level. Now, there are over 800 elk living on over 800 square miles of central Pennsylvania’s wilderness.
Bringing Them Back
Since Pennsylvania’s elk reinstatement has been so successful, other states have started to reintroduce the Rocky Mountain Elk into the Eastern Elk’s range. These include Ontario, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and in areas of the Great Smoky Mountains. Other states, such as Illinois, New York, and West Virginia, have researched the possibility and they, too, may attempt to foster an elk herd.
Although there are no longer any Eastern Elk, more than just its legacy remains. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt gave 20 elk to New Zealand as a gift. Ten of these animals were from Yellowstone, the other 10 came from an Indian game reserve in Massachusetts and were believed to be Eastern Elk.
It’s also very possible that small herds could have survived, especially within the vast wilderness in Ontario. If any did survive, by now, the bloodlines would have mixed with that of the implanted Rocky Mountain Elk. Although this doesn’t replace the loss of a species, at least a small part may have had the opportunity to live on.
Although the history of the Eastern Elk is a sad one, it does inspire hope. With proper management and cooperation between agencies, sportsmen and conservationists, populations can be restored.