"Our" Skyline Elk

Summarized by Sen Speroff

Interest in our local elk grew a large crowd to the spring SRN meeting. Eighty-two people attended! Don Vanderbergh, an assistant ODF&W district wildlife biologist from Sauvie Island office, presented a very informative talk about our Roosevelt elk herds. Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife develops elk management plans, works with landowners, surveys herds, regulates hunts, and deals with habitat issues. We thought those of you who did not attend the meeting would be interested in some of the facts presented.

In the time of Lewis & Clark, elk were extremely abundant here. During their winter at Fort Clatsop, they depended upon elk, killing 147 elk for food, clothing, and survival. By the late 1880's elk had been almost eliminated from Oregon except in isolated pockets. Elk had been killed by the thousands for hides and teeth by market hunters. In 1899, the Oregon legislature passed a law prohibiting the killing of elk and selling its meat. Unfortunately no funds were allocated to enforce the law. By 1917 they were so few in number that Oregon Fish & Game
Commission wrote it was "not considered possible to reestablish elk as a game animal in the state of Oregon." Pubilc interest to save the elk surged. A small number of elk were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park to areas near Seaside, Salem and Crater Lake.

Because of public commitment, the population grew. By 1938, a small controlled hunting season was allowed. Today, it is estimated that 65,000 Roosevelt now reside in Oregon, 2200 of which are in the Scappoose Unit and about 64 in our extended area.

Elk have four basic needs -food, water, shelter and space. The quality and quantity of these factors dictate their abundance, distribution and population. Elk are mixed feeders, preferring grasses. Also, they readily eat foxglove, fireweed, salvia, vine maple, red elderberry, and of course your orchard. They prefer a habitat with mixed stands of timber, meadows and water sources. In our area, a herd travels in a circular pattern that has only a 3-5 mile radius. Occasionally herds will meet and intermingle with each other for several hours or several weeks.

Elk have a strong social structure, using a multitude of sounds and body postures to communicate. The dominant animal of a herd is a lead cow. She determines the herd's movement, even during breeding season. in late August-September, mature bull elks leave their solitary lifestyle to seek out herds consisting of cows, calves and immature males. Each bull tries to gather as many cows as possible to breed, challenging other bulls by using antlers to show status and to fight. By the end of the breeding season, 85% of the mature cows have been bred. Of those pregnant cows, only about 50% of them will carry their pregnancy to term. After breeding, the bulls then leave the herds to return to a solitary life or to live with several other bulls.

Elk spend the winter forging for diminishing food sources and can be aggressive about entering open pastures to eat. In the early spring bulls shed their antlers and the elk spend their days eating to regain their body weigh and vitality. InJune, pregnant cows separate from the herd to "drop" their calves. Initially the cow and calf live away from the herd. During this time, the calf is left alone for extended periods in order to not attract bears, coyotes, bobcats and cougars. The mother returns periodically to feed her calf. After 3-4 weeks, cows and calves return to the herd. In the herd, young calves join a "nursery group" in the middle of the herd. During the summer, young bulls travel the most, exploring. In the heat of summer, herds prefer areas with creeks and riparian zones. By August, calves are weaned. Then the breeding season begins again.

RR Nov. 2000