When the first real job I landed after college moved me west to Idaho — where Rocky Mountain Majesty meets fabled Yellowstone Country — I remember being most excited by the prospect of seeing elk. Lots of elk.
I could have saved lots of time, perhaps, by moving to the Oregon Coast instead.
The elk that once roamed widely across the long north~south fingers of glacier-carved hills and valleys where I grew up back East had long since been hunted to extinction by the time I came of age. To see elk, I knew I would need to follow Horace Greeley’s infamous advice to “go West, young man.” And when I did just that, I was surprised to learn, over time, just how close elk throughout the American West came to following buffalo before them into near-oblivion. No exception, Oregon came closer to losing its elk than most folks today might imagine:
- In 1859, following the population boom sparked by Oregon Trail migration and 49er Gold Rush, Oregon became our 33rd state
- With elk and deer in great demand among hungry hordes of new human settlers, game laws passed in 1872 arrived already “too little, too late”
- By 1888 poaching and continued “market hunting” had created such scarcity of elk throughout the state, that a law was passed to ban ALL forms of elk hunting through 1910 — a ban which would be extended two more decades
- The continuing decline of Oregon elk was deemed dire enough in 1912 to import elk by train from Wyoming, and selectively “plant” the new arrivals around the state to augment native stocks
- Throughout the 1920s, multiple commissioned wildlife surveys found no more than 500 head — in total — left standing statewide
- Conservation and restocking efforts at last reached a turning point around 1933, when limited hunting was again allowed, and elk began a steady, if slow, expansion in number and range
Today elk are clearly back from the brink, seemingly bigger and better than ever. But it might yet be premature for fans of their return to the coast, in particular, to take their presence for granted.
To me, the sight of the magnificent herd bull above, working hard to manage his harem precisely as nature intended, richly fulfills a lifelong dream. My mind thinks, “What’s not to love?” about seeing such beautiful beasts roaming free, foreground to an ocean backdrop made famous by “The Goonies” cult-classic movie, with Oregon’s most-storied lighthouse (nicknamed “Terrible Tillie” with good cause) staring darkly back, just offshore. Seriously — what’s not to love?
But on the nightly news just this week, fresh in mind as I write this, I also saw the annual sad story of the inevitable tourist who, while happily visiting the coast for a weekend of hot-tubbing and storm-watching from a comfy condo (not that there’s anything wrong with that), unwisely decided to stroll with her little pet dog through a family of elk grazing peacefully nearby.
As this hapless visitor was soon horrified to learn — and a Portland newscaster breathless to report — elk do not like dogs. Not even cute, cuddly little sweater dogs as hers appeared on TV to be. Regardless of size or breed, dogs still trigger, in the primordial brains of elk, memories of a time when the human invention of “dogs” was not yet even a glint in a hungry wolf’s eye. With a nod thus to Darwin and Pavlov both, a toy poodle (even when bedecked in perfectly non-threatening Gucci vest and matching rain booties) will trigger the same amount of alarm in the mind of a modern-day elk as a hundred-pound wolfhound bred with purpose by ancient huntsmen. Elk have never liked dogs, and never will.
And so the annual debate will undoubtedly continue — does the Oregon Coast now have a terrifying elk problem … or a perennial people problem?
To me, the broader beauty subtly emanating from the clip above, is that there (thankfully!) remain a few wild places left in this world — special places — where nature can still be observed roaming free. And for such rare privilege, I see elk good-naturedly adjusting and adapting in perfectly peaceful measure to everything (bullets, dogs, highways, suburbs) the World of Man has to date thrown at them, nearly to their extinction.
I can only wonder if we humans can ever modify our individual and collective behaviors, even so slightly as to accommodate the single thing elk really need most — simply enough space to live.
I do wonder.
*From “ODFW History, 1792 – 2011, A Brief History of the Oregon State Game Commission” and other sources.