The Eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis) is one of six subspecies of elk that inhabited northern and eastern United States, and southern Canada. The last Eastern elk was shot in Pennsylvania on September 1, 1877. The subspecies was declared as extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1880. Another subspecies of elk, the Merriam's Elk, also became extinct at roughly the same time.
The Eastern Elk was larger than its western cousins. A full-grown bull could weigh up to 1000 pounds, stand 50-60 inches tall at the shoulder, and carry a rack of antlers six feet in length.
By the late 15th century, elk were the most widespread in the New World and could be found throughout most of North America. Eastern elk inhabited the vast forests of eastern Canada and the eastern United States as far west as the Mississippi River. As people continued to settle in the region over the next few centuries, elk populations decreased due to over-hunting and the loss of their dense woodland habitat. Naturalist John James Audubon reportedly mentioned that by 1851 a few elk could still be found in the Allegheny Mountains but that they were virtually gone from the remainder of their range. By the end of the 19th century the Eastern elk was completely extinct. What little is known about this race of elk has been gleaned from remains and historical references. Mitochondrial DNA studies in 2004 indicate that Cervus canadensis are a species distinct from European red deer.
Replacement in their former range
Not long after the last elk was killed in Pennsylvania, federal officials, worried about mushrooming elk herds in and around Yellowstone National Park, offered the animals to anyone willing to take them. The recently formed Pennsylvania Game Commission took Yellowstone officials up on their offer, and launched a program to reintroduce elk to Pennsylvania. Starting in 1913 and ending in 1926, the Commission released 177 elk in 10 counties, including 50 animals from Yellowstone. Currently, Pennsylvania's elk herd numbers more than 800 and their range covers approximately 800 square miles.
In 1990, feasibility studies were conducted to determine if wild, free-ranging elk still had a place in some of their former eastern haunts. Once this was complete, healthy source herds of Rocky Mountain Elk from Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Alberta’s Elk Island National Park were used to introduce elk back into the former Eastern Elk range.
Successful elk populations have now been introduced in Arkansas (1991), Wisconsin (1995), Ontario (2001), Kentucky, Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2002, the area known as Northern Michigan, and in 2012 Virginia. In addition, feasibility studies have also been completed in Illinois, West Virginia and New York (although these have not yet resulted in any elk restorations).
There may be more remaining of the eastern elk than old skeletons. In 1905, 18 elk were introduced to Fiordland National Park in New Zealand—a gift from Theodore Roosevelt. The elk were survivors of an original shipment of 20, half of which came from Yellowstone National Park and half from an Indian game reserve in Brookfield, Massachusetts, owned by H.E. Richardson. The latter are believed to be Eastern elk captured in northern Minnesota by Native Americans. The possible Eastern elk bloodline might explain some unusual characteristics he has seen in New Zealand elk, such as "bifurcated" antlers in which the dagger, or fourth point, forks at the tip.
However, the likelihood of a pure bloodline is very low. Even though the animal population had successfully adapted to the harsh terrain, several factors likely contributed to a dilution of the pure gene pool. To wit, removal of protection in 1935; the crossbreeding with red deer that spread into the area; the gazetting of the Fiordland region as a National park in 1952; and the resulting status of the elk and all introduced game species being relegated to that of noxious animals, or pests, by the government agencies of the time has seen the wild herd go into decline. Today, that herd is but a shadow of its former self, being comprised now only of crossbreeds of varying degree that have defied the efforts of government agencies to exterminate or remove them from Fiordland.
Eastern elk could have also hung on in the extensive forests of Ontario. While evidence is sketchy, numerous people reported seeing a band of elk near Sault Ste. Marie in the early 1980s. These elk could be of eastern origin—and could still exist in the wilds of Ontario.
- "Foolsfate Almanac"
- "Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources"
- "US Fish & Wildlife Service: Endangered Species Program"
- "Elk in PA today more likely to be shot by camera than gun"
- "Northwest Pennsylvania's Great Outdoors Majestic Elk Herd"
- "History of Pennsylvania Elk"
- "Elk in Arkansas"
- Taylor, Mark (2012-05-19). "Elk begin road to recovery in Virginia". The Roanoke Times. Retrieved 2012-05-20.
- "Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation: Elk Restoration"
- "Eastern Elk: Are They Really Extinct?"
- "History of New Zealand Elk