A home where the elk used to roam

A home where the elk used to roam

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

Pebble Creek is a pristine little stream that flows through the rear of my property in Loves Park. True to its name, pebbles of various sizes and small rocks and boulders are found in abundance along its course. I find many interesting fossil-bearing rocks along the rivulet when I frequently stroll along its banks.

I was doing this recently when my eyes became focused on an object in a shallow race that I knew was not a rock. Recovering the object, I immediately saw it was a molar tooth of some vertebrate animal that primarily chewed its food. I returned the tooth to my office-library-laboratory, and, after cleaning it of mud and sand and consulting a number of references, I determined that the tooth had undoubtedly belonged to an elk that had roamed this area more than 150 years ago.

When the first Europeans reached America, the elk was the most widespread big game species in most of the country, except along the Gulf coast, the great basins of Utah and Nevada, and northern New England. The ancestors of the elk, or Wapiti (Shawnee, meaning white rump) as it is frequently called, came to North America from Asia across the now non-existent land bridge connecting the two continents across the Bering Sea.

The elk is the second-largest member of the deer family in the world, second only to the moose. This monarch of the high forest, as it has sometimes been called, ranged widely in Illinois until the early 1800s, and by the mid 1800s, it had been all but extirpated. There are records of a few persisting until as late as 1855 in isolated locales around the state, but it was no longer present in northern Illinois by the 1820s.

Today, the range of the American elk is restricted mainly to scattered localities in the western half of the United States and Canada. The largest contiguous range exists in the Rocky Mountains south to northern New Mexico. Small, isolated, reintroduced populations exist in the wild in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, and a few other states.

In no small way did the dentition of this magnificent animal cause its reduction in numbers and overall distribution. Two large, tusk-like teeth in the front of the upper jaw proved to be very attractive to humans. The women of certain Indian tribes cherished them as items of jewelry, and a major, benevolent, protective, and fraternal organization adopted the elk’s tooth as its emblem. Untold numbers of elk were slaughtered by hunters who collected only the teeth to be sold to members of the association to be used as watch fobs. After extracting the front teeth, they frequently did not bother with the rest of the carcass, a practice similar to the hunting of elephants or walruses solely for the ivory they possess.

In former times, the Lord of the Wilderness, as the elk has also been referred to by some nature writers, provided early settlers and Indians with a bountiful supply of meat, hides, bones, and antlers. Unfortunately, the history of the elk in North America is a near repetition of that of the bison.

The elk, however, is a highly adaptable animal, and it is unlikely it will ever be driven to extinction. Studies have shown that, with proper management, elk herds can increase in size by 33 percent in a 10-year period.

Elk are harem breeders, and the bull roars (bugles) to broadcast his size and strength with the intent of luring females to his seraglio during the breeding season. Bugling and roaring are honest advertisements of the male’s strength and virility, as they involve the expenditure of a large amount of energy. The cow is thought to assume that the bull that bugles the loudest and most often is the strongest and is genetically superior to the other males that might be attempting to lure her to their harems. By instinct, she chooses the loudest bugler to be her reproductive partner

Teddy Roosevelt (who is more closely identified with the “Bull Moose”) was an avid elk hunter and observer during his sojourn as a rancher, naturalist, and hunter in North Dakota in the 1880s. In his book The Wilderness Hunter, he describes the bugle or call of the bull elk: “When heard from a distance, and in its proper place, it is one of the grandest and most beautiful sounds in nature.”

The traditional mating season of the elk peaks in October. I listened at night during October and early November for the bugle of a bull elk here in the Rock River Valley. But I didn’t hear one, except in my imagination.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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