The "Grey Ghost" may very well be one of the greatest challenges for today's Bowhunters. Volumes have been written by Outdoorsmen and Wildlife Managers about these Magnificent Beasts, yet mystery seems to surround them. They truely hold a special place in the Bowhunter's Heart.
EASTERN (Cervus canadensis canadensis)--The same species discovered by the first white men in North America. For simplification here, it is defined as all elk east of the Rocky Mountains, although a few "eastern" elk undoubtedly took refuge in the Rockies when driven from the Great Plains and Black Hills.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN (Cervus canadensis nelsoni)--The elk of the Rockies and West, other than Pacific Coast. Most of the top trophies listed in record books (such as Boone and Crockett Club's world annals) belong to this longer-tined species. (Note: This species is sometimes classified Cervus elaphus.)
ROOSEVELT (Cervus canadensis roosevelti)--The dark species inhabiting rainforests of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Canada, and, to an extent, northern California. These elk are often larger (but not necessarily heavier) than the Rocky Mountain variety.
MANITOBAN (Cervus canadensis manitobensis)--Elk of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Some historically crossed the border into Great Lakes states.
MERRIAM (Cervus canadensis merriami)--Now extinct species which lived in the Southwest, mainly Arizona and New Mexico.
TULE (Cervus nannodes)--The nearly extinct "dwarf" wapiti of central California marshes and tule swamps.
If this rundown seems complicated let's hereafter refer to all elk as merely Cervus canadensis. Most encyclopedias and reference texts do the same. After all, the elk don't care what we call them in English or Latin. But we should know as much as possible about the various species, and differentiate between location and hunting techniques. We will also see how elk were hunted in the past. It may help us locate and outwit them today.
It could be debated how the wapiti arrived in North America. But most ungulate scientists attribute it to migration after the last Great Ice Age from Asia (where elk still thrive) over a "land bridge" into western Alaska. From there they pushed down through Canada into the present-day United States. One of the first to record observations of the "great deer" was Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1542.
Others who followed described elk as "fairly widespread" along the Eastern Seaboard. They were frequently sighted from New England almost into the Deep South. Georgia, Florida, and thereabouts was, in fact, about the only region in the U.S. where elk did not seem to dwell in numbers.
Ancient elk bones were also discovered on Alaska's Afognak Island. But the herds that are there now are of the reintroduced Roosevelt species.
It is well documented that the Europeans named this new member of the deer family "alke" after their Old World moose. Of course, this became confusing later when American moose were also discovered. But by then the name stuck, albeit altered slightly. Only the Shawnee and a few neighboring Indian tribes labeled it something else: wapiti, or "light deer."
Scientists later would adopt the Shawnee name to avoid the technical misnomer, elk. Of course, the Piute Indians of the Great Basin used neither appellation, for they were among the few early Americans who had never observed the creature.
Elk flourished from Maine (few early journals mention them, but elk bones were later located there) across the Adirondacks, Alleghenies, and Appalachians, through Kentucky-Tennessee all the way to Louisiana. From there they thrived westward to the Pacific Ocean, save only the desert Great Basin. Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin harbored large elk populations. So did Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, although wapiti disappeared there more quickly due to a rapid civilization influx. Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton estimated some 10 million elk lived in North America before arrival of the Europeans. But numbers plummeted to about 100,000 by 1907. Populations stabilized for the next two decades, but many of the elk were non-huntable inhabitants of the Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton ecosystems.
Over the next 75 years, Abolition of Market Hunting, development of Modern Wildlife Management Practises, and diligant work of dedicated Sportsman brought Wapiti back from the brink of extinction. They currently number between 500 & 750 thousand strong.
Until Then Good Luck and God Bless.......Stu Keck