From the exhibits of the Estes Park Museum
Find fascinating information about the elk species and their interaction with ancient and contemporary human populations in and around Estes Park below, and more at the Estes Park Museum.
Species: C. Canadensis
Eurasian ancestors of elk first appear in the fossil record twelve million years ago. Some migrated across the Bering Land Bridge to North America twelve thousand years ago. Based on their environments, six North American and four Asian subspecies of elk evolved out of these original ancestral groups.
Subtle differences in antler shape and size, body mass, coloration and mating behavior are due to adaption to local habitats. Of the six North American subspecies, the Eastern (C. canadensis canadensis) and Merriam's (C. canadensis merriami) have been extinct for a century, while the Roosevelt (C. canadensis roosevelti), Tule (C. canadensis nannodes), Manitoban (C. canadensis manitobensis) and Rocky Mountain (C. canadensis nelsoni) elk continue to thrive.
An Elk by any other name…
Early European explorers in North America called the animal "elk" because of its relatively large size. This name is connected with the Latin alces, Old Norse elgr, Scandinavian elg, and German elch, all of which refer to the animal known in North America as the moose. Another common name, "wapiti," is from the Shawnee word meaning "white rump."
Ancient peoples arrived in this region fourteen thousand years ago following elk that migrated seasonally to the Estes Park area. Native American peoples, such as the Ute and Arapaho, would continue to follow the ancient trails and hunt during the summer in the Estes Valley. In the late fall, they would return to their wintering grounds by North Park and in the Front Range.
One of the easiest and most productive ways to obtain large quantities of big game for native peoples was through the construction of a game drive. Built high in the alpine tundra, stone walls were strategically constructed to funnel game into stone corrals where concealed hunters would ambush them. One of largest drive sites in the Southern Rockies is on Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the 1800s trappers and miners that passed through Colorado relied on elk as an important food source. By the 1860s, word got to Denver about the abundant wildlife in Estes Park and many people came to visit, and eventually settle in the area. As a result of hunting for subsistence and income, as well as leisure and sport, the elk population vanished in Estes Park by 1880.
"Our elk only lasted about three years. They came down from their high range just before Christmas, in 1875, by the thousands and were met by hunters with repeating rifles and four horse teams; hauled to Denver and sold for three or four cents per pound. In 1876, fewer came down; in 1877 very few were seen on this side of the Divide. In 1878 I killed my last elk, and to get him [I] had to go over Flat Top [Mountain]." - Abner Sprague, 1875 Homesteader in Moraine Park
"One of the interesting sites for tourists in Estes Park, which will be new even to former observers, is a herd of about 25 elk, which can be observed any day grazing in what has been rechristened the Stanley elk park." -June 21, 1913 Estes Park Trail
The idea to reintroduce elk to the Estes Park area was first brought to light in 1909 and then revived again by a group of citizens in 1913. Spearheaded by local Pieter Hondius, sufficient funds were raised to purchase twenty-five young elk from Yellowstone National Park, and then twenty-four more elk in March of 1915.
These populations thrived. Rocky Mountain National Park was established in September of 1915 and became a protected area from human hunting. With the previous hunting of local wolf and grizzly bear populations, elk's main predators were extinct locally. Other predator populations, such as mountain lion and coyote, were kept extremely low with "active predator control" in Estes Park right after the elk reintroduction and through the 1920s. Today, there are about twenty-four hundred elk in the Estes valley, a number considered high for this area.
Visit the Estes Park Museum's website and Facebook page to learn more about the history of Estes Park. The museum is currently closed due to COVID-19.