The following is the third article of the series on Yellowstone Elk or Wapiti (Cervus canadensis canadensis) -- The Editor.
All sections of the United States, with the exception of the desert areas, were originally well stocked with many species of big game animals but the expansion of agricultural operations drastically reduced the range of these larger species while uncontrolled hunting caused near extinction of such animals as elk, buffalo, deer and others. The birds and small game were able to survive in limited numbers as their forage requirements were low and they were able to evade the hunters in the limited remaining cover.
After conservationists had secured the enactment of legislation designed to protect the game resources, it became desirable to attempt to restock some ranges which were not suitable for agriculture or other development. Yellowstone National Park was called upon to supply elk for restocking and was in a position to respond because the winter range of the Northern herd made them accessible during the winter months which is the best time to successfully trap live elk.
Although some elk had been shipped to zoological parks previous to that time, the year 1912 marked the beginning of large scale shipments for restocking purposes. During that season the State of Washington secured 106 while 30 were transplanted to Glacier National Park. Since the inauguration of the policy of disposing of surplus elk by live shipments, over 5,000 have been successfully transported to other areas where they have served as the nucleus of new herds or have added new blood to other bands whose numbers had been seriously depleted.
There were originally one predominant species and three sub-species of elk found in North America, but only one "Cervus canadensis canadensis" was well distributed and this group included those in Yellowstone National Park. It is the policy of the National Park Service to restrict shipments for restocking to sections of the primitive range of this species described by Hornaday as follows: "The former range of the elk covered absolutely the garden ground of our continent, omitting the arid region. Its boundary extended from central Massachusetts to northern Georgia, southern Illinois, northern Texas -- the whole Rocky Mountain region up to the Peace River and Manitoba." The there other sub-species were found in California, some sections of Arizona and the Pacific Northwest. The vast wildlife reservoir of Yellowstone has sent elk to nearly every corner of their former range where there still remained enough unoccupied land and available forage to support them. In addition, a large number of zoos, zoological gardens, and parks have been supplied with elk for display purposes.
The job of securing wild animals such as elk is surrounded by difficulties. Attempts to handle then in the same manner as domestic range stock have been uniformly unsuccessful as they cannot be driven or herded by men on horseback. The one factor which makes their capture possible is the winter snow which drives them to the lower elevations and puts a drastic limit on the available forage. Only during time winter months when they feel the pangs of hunger can they be lured into traps by the hay which is scattered both inside and outside the corrals.
These corrals used to trap elk are usually circular and a complete trap consists of two large corrals, one or more smaller pens and a loading chute all of which are connected by gates. The first large corral is about ten feet in height and is constructed of heavy woven wire stock fencing on heavy poles for the front section as the animals will not readily enter an enclosure unless they can see out. The half of the fence on the side which connects with the second corral is boarded to the top. The elk enter the trap by a large gate in the front of the first corral. This gate is designed so that it will swing shut when released. When trapping operations are in progress this gate is fastened in the open position by a latch which is in turn attached to a long trigger line that may be from 100 yards to one-quarter of a mile in length and is held up by tripod type supports. This long trigger line enables the ranger to quietly approach within view of the trap and still remain a sufficient distance away to avoid disturbing the elk which may enter the outer corral to feed on the hay.
The actual trapping is usually done at night so the rangers engaged in the work have to make regular trips to their vantage points from the time darkness falls until daybreak. The actual time that elk enter the trap is dependent, to a large extent, upon the brightness of the night and upon weather conditions. When the moon is full, elk feed almost entirely at night and retire to protected timber areas during the day. Binoculars, with a high degree of light-gathering power are used to enable the operator to view the trap in the darkness, but on many stormy or very dark nights he is forced to pull the trigger and trust to luck.
After the gate swings shut the captured animals are immediately herded into the second corral which is boarded the full height for its entire circumference. This leaves the approach section free for further operation and the captured animals are held in this second corral where they are fed and watered until being transported to their new ranges.
Long experience has demonstrated that shipments should be made as soon after the animals are captured as possible so they are seldom held in the traps for more than a few days. Live shipments to areas within 200 to 400 miles are now made by trucks equipped with stock racks which may provide for from 10 to 25 elk. Care is exercised to prevent undue crowding during transit. When the trucks arrive, they are backed up to a loading chute very similar to those used for leading cattle or other livestock. Shipments to more distant points are made by rail, either express or freight, the animals being first transported to the rail head by trucks. The elk are fed and watered by the company when sent by express, while special attendants are provided when freight shipments are made.
Individual shipments are made in special crates that are fitted with doors for feeding and watering. It is possible for the animal to lie down in one of these crates and for unusually long shipments the sides are padded with as much care as a manufacturer of furniture prepares a deluxe chair for his best customer. Often the elk shipped in this manner become world travelers, such as the pair recently shipped to the Zoological Gardens in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The loading operations are attended by much strenuous work and considerable excitement. A few head of elk are permitted to enter the small pens where they are carefully examined and undesirable animals are released. Those selected for shipment are then crowded, one or two at a time, into the loading chute where the sex and age are determined and a metal tag, bearing a serial number is inserted in the ear of each animal for future identification. A careful record is thus made of each animal and hunters who secure a tagged elk are requested to return the band to the address thereon, and in this way much valuable data is compiled on migrations, age, and other pertinent facts. The antlers of bull elk are cut off so that the other animals will not be injured in shipment. This is not harmful to the bulls and the remaining stubs will be shed in the spring and be replaced with a new pair of normal antlers by the following fall.
Free on the range, the elk may be a timid and shy creature of the wild, in the close quarters of a pen some become paralyzed with fear and excitement, while others will exhibit all the stubborn characteristics of an army mule combined with the pugnacity of a wildcat. A cow "on the prod" will valiantly stand her ground, gnashing her teeth and barking defiance at her tormentors. When a small side door is opened by a ranger attempting to urge her into the chute, she will charge with all the fury of an enraged grizzly. Failure to quickly dodge out of the small door in time to avoid the onrush is apt to result in serious injury for the flying hooves are formidable weapons of offense. Experience has shown that elk may best be handled by maintaining peace and quietness at the loading chute. Noise and turmoil cause elk to become excited and hard to handle, while these wild creatures easily comprehend careful management and a calm atmosphere at the corral.
Once the animals are loaded, the drivers make all possible haste in getting them to their destination so that losses in transit are kept to a minimum. No stops, other than those for gasoline and drivers' meals are made so that although it is a tough life for the drivers the elk are kept in their restricted space only as long as absolutely necessary.
Before shipments to any locality are authorized, the United States Forest Service, the State Fish and Game Department and all other agencies directly concerned must approve the restocking program. This is essential, as proper protection and management must follow if the elk are to survive and increase. The success of the program is well illustrated by the following item which appeared in the "Daily News", a publication of the United States Forest Service, Region IV, Ogden, Utah:
"THIRTY-TWO ELK MULTIPLY TO 500 HEAD IN 20 YEARS"
In addition to serving as a recreational area for approximately half a million visitors who come each season to view the scenic Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of 3,472 square miles serves as a source of big game, for each fall many animals drift a cross its boundaries and furnish excellent hunting in the surrounding states. This great sanctuary has also supplied zoos, National Forests, National Parks, and State Game ranges with buffalo, elk, and bears for exhibition and restocking purposes. While hunting within the park is strictly prohibited, it has directly provided sportsmen with hunting due to natural migration and the shipment of game animals to other ranges.
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