The Mystery of Disappearing Elk

Fellow master hunter and homey Wes Clogston and I have been doing our part to protect the ag ground of Paradise. Master hunters are essentially advanced hunter ed graduates who have passed an extensive exam over rules, statutes and ethics, who have completed a significant number of volunteer conservation hours, have demonstrated shooting skill and have a clean criminal record. One of our challenges is to deal with trouble-making wildlife. Wes and I are currently committed to removing a couple of the renegade elk which raid said ag ground nightly, then return to the Yakima Training Center to rest up for their next night’s work. Thus far this fall, we have managed to remove one of those wapiti.

In the process of finding these renegade wapiti, we have made a startling discovery – one which may serve as a cautionary tale for you if you plan to hunt elk in Washington’s general season which opens in a bit over a week – or elsewhere around the West.

What we experienced took me back to an eye-opening conversation I had with Utah brother-in-law Jerry Johnson nearly two decades ago. We had gathered at a long-overdue wedding in Bow (north and west of Mount Vernon), Washington. Jerry believed he had solved a mystery with which he had struggled through decades of Utah elk hunting.

As you know, the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association holds the finest minds in the West. Thus, mysteries often lead us to the forefront of wildlife science (though some see only accidents of timing and bumbling). In my role as RCRGWD&OTTBA Wildlife Research and Update Chief, I broke the news of Jerry’s stunning research in this space in August of 2000, the Biennium.

In your own study, you have found, no doubt, that there are only two recognized species of wapiti in North America. Cervus elaphus includes three subspecies (or “races”); our Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk, and the Manitoba wapiti, of Canada. Cervus nannodes is the mule-deer size critter known as the tule, or dwarf, elk of California. To achieve recognition of a new subspecies of elk has long been thought impossible.

Enter brother-in-law Jerry. Jerry makes custom knives, and has long studied southern Utah’s wildlife. He has an eye for detail, and this is the story as he told it to me.

Some decades ago, he began to see distinct differences between many of the wapiti taken on his turf and most Rocky Mountain elk. For example, the antlers of a number of local bulls looked like leafless woody shrubs. The ears of both bulls and cows were covered with long hair clusters, resembling dried bunch grasses. They had thicker and longer dew-claws than most elk, and most of them had dust and sand in their coats.

Over the years, fewer and fewer elk were being taken in Jerry=s country, and those harvested were taken mostly at first and last possible light. A few normal looking elk were still being taken during mid-day hunts, but the Adusty@ elk, as he began calling them, virtually disappeared.

In September of 1999, during a pre-dawn scouting trip, Jerry spotted a cow and a calf moving quietly into a sandy opening in the sage. “I still don=t know quite how to describe it,” he said. “Did you ever watch a burrowing toad in the desert, as it wriggles its legs and body and sort of >settles= into the ground? Well, that=s as close as I can get to it.” Shaking his head in some still disbelief, he continued. “So the cow dropped onto her belly, with her calf right next. They started moving their legs – like they were loosening the ground with their dew-claws – and wriggling so fast they literally shook themselves into the ground… A dust cloud hung for a minute or so right over where they=d been. I, uh.. I never saw anything like it.”

Jerry said he began seriously studying the elk. In the dark, he sat over the sage and brush flats, pinpointing the tiny dust clouds at first light. Once the elk were in the ground, he found, they absolutely would not move, and were almost impossible to find. Their ears covered the tips of their noses, and they breathed in what appeared to be clusters of dry bunch grasses. Documenting their habits required weeks of sitting silent and motionless until dark, when they would literally “shake” themselves out of the ground.

Jerry’s observations and copious notes earned him just recognition. He was notified that biologists with the High Order Lobby Yegga, Congress of Wapiti Studies, recognized his subspecies of the Rocky Mountain elk – officially to be known as Cervus elaphus johnsonii. Its common name would be “burrowing elk.” (Somehow, his elk is not yet listed in the scientific literature. …Another mystery.)

Time after time, as we beat the bushes for marauding elk on the Training Center, Wes and I saw elk we’d been watching literally disappear – impossibly. The only logical explanation is that some of our local elk have developed (evolved?) habits not unlike the burrowing elk of Utah.

Given our astonishment at the tactics of those disappearing elk, we will now be examining with great care the ground and brush where elk disappeared. Wes and I strongly recommend that you do the same each time an elk literally disappears from where you expect it to be. It=s time, we think, for a serious scientific survey of the disappearing elk of Paradise. Report your findings here.

Wes and I, as have all master hunters, signed an oath pledging to always act in an ethical manner. How we react to truly remarkable scientific theories abour elk evolution, however, is apparently up to us. Good luck. Happy hunting.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized