This evening Sergt. Ordway and Wiser returned with a part of the meat which R. Fields had killed; the ballance of the party with Sergt. Gass remained in order to bring the ballance of the meat to the river at a point agreed on where the canoe is to meet them again tomorrow morning. This evening we had what I call an excellent supper it consisted of a marrowbone a piece and a brisket of boiled Elk that had the appearance of a little fat on it. this for Fort Clatsop is living in high stile. — Meriwether Lewis, February 7, 1806
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached the mouth of the Nemaha River in July 1804, they did more than enter into modern-day Nebraska. They crossed into a different ecosystem in which they would spend most of the next two years. When most of us think of the incredible bounty of the Great Plains, the first animal that comes to mind is the buffalo. But the elk would play a far greater role in the diet and clothing of the Corps of Discovery — and eventually come close to meeting the same fate as the more glamorous bison.
An elk is an enormous animal, far larger than a deer. A bull elk weighs about 700 pounds and a female tips the scales at about 450 (by contrast, a white-tailed deer weighs about 120 pounds). During their time on the Great Plains, the Corps of Discovery killed and ate almost 300 elk, more than any other animal except deer. I’ve never tasted elk myself, but am told it has a beefy taste similar to a lean steak.
Elk were even more critical to Lewis and Clark’s survival on the Pacific Coast, where they were the only large game animal around. When the Corps of Discovery held their famous vote on the location of Fort Clatsop in the fall of 1805, no consideration weighed heavier than the good elk hunting in the vicinity. Sergeant Patrick Gass recorded that the Corps brought in at least 131 elk in the course of the winter. With a conservative estimate of 120 pounds of edible meat per animal, that adds up to a whopping 15,720 pounds of meat, or over four pounds of meat per man every day.
Even so, elk hunting was hardly the carnivore’s dream that it might appear. For one thing, the longer the Corps of Discovery stayed at Fort Clatsop, the scarcer the elk became. The hunters had to range farther afield with every passing week, and drag the mammoth animals home through soggy overgrown forest. As Clark wrote, it was not unusual for the Corps to have to eat “Spoiled Elk which is extreamly disagreeable to the Smel, as well as the taste.”
Like so many animals, elk were no match for “market hunting,” a form of commercial exploitation of the country’s natural resources that took hold in the decades after the Civil War. Appearing in retrospect to be a form of utter madness, the system led to the extinction or near-extinction of a variety of North American animals from the passenger pigeon to the buffalo to the salmon to the elk. From a population numbering in the multimillions in Lewis & Clark’s day, the elk population in 1900 had plummeted to a mere 90,000 individuals.
Because of vigilant conservation efforts spearheaded by hunters, the elk population has rebounded to about a million, and the animals are being reintroduced around the west and in Kentucky. The ironic fact is that it was recreational hunters who cared about these animals enough to pay millions of dollars over the past century in taxes and fees, that in turn financed habitat and research that brought this great American animal back from near-extinction. In a way, I feel sad about the beautiful elk who are killed for trophies, but what have I ever done to save an elk? As hunting declines in popularity, the future of these kinds of conservation efforts is in doubt, and whether animal lovers and environmentalists will step up to pay the difference is anybody’s guess.
When you are in Lewis & Clark country, check out the Elk Country Visitor Center in Missoula, which is run by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This elegant facility resembles a giant Cabela’s ad (no surprise as they are a major sponsor). But you can have a really good time browsing and playing with fun and educational displays about elk behavior and habitat, and learn about what magnificent, tough, and confident animals they are. There is an amazing exhibit of trophy elk here. We enjoyed seeing how huge the elk are and hearing recordings of their “bugles.”