This is my first time blogging here, and thanks to Ralph and Brian for sitting me down and inviting me. I’m going to try to attach a couple of photos to this post, so you’ll know what I’m talking about here.
Here’s a picture of a bull and a cow elk. No big deal, right? See them all the time in the Salmon River country, hardly worth wasting pixels on. But look again: look at the bull’s heavy body. Look at the madrone tree behind the cow. These are Klamath River elk, Roosevelt elk, and they only returned to the Klamath-Siskiyou mountains about twenty years ago. So when I see this photo, I get a little verklempt. It was taken just off the Bunker Hill Road, where I spent a lot of time doing silvicultural work in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days we never thought elk would be here again. The conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t reintroduce elk because the flat lands near the river, where they once wintered, were occupied by people now. In the 1920s, some Rocky Mountain elk had been turned loose near Scott Valley, but they didn’t last long. So as we drove up that road — many times, struggling to make a series of clearcuts grow trees again — we didn’t think about elk.
Old Hollis Anderson, if he had still been alive, might have reminded us. Hollis was a 70-some-year old man who sometimes hitched a ride on our school bus in the 1960s, between Seiad Valley and Happy Camp. He sat behind our driver, wearing a canvas coat impregnated with sheep dip, which he said repelled ticks, and carrying a 30-30 Winchester rifle. As he rode, he chatted with the driver, recapitulating the history of the River. Sometimes he pointed out deeply etched trails across the River, which eighty years without elk had not erased. Once I asked him what happened to the elk. “They shot them all off,” he said. “You couldn’t live with them,” he added, but would not say why.
In those days, the only place to see them was at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park south of Crescent City, and on a trip to the coast in 1966, I saw my first elk. As we walked the path down to the beach early one morning, on our way to fish, a six-point bull emerged from the fog, his antlers silhouetted against the surf. Behind him, three cows blew at us and trotted away, their heads high. On the way back that afternoon, our stringers loaded with ocean perch, we saw a dozen of them, grazing in the waving salt-tinged grass, unafraid as we walked by. Signs warned us that these were wild animals and we shouldn’t approach them.
But in 1986 I sat in a Forest Service pickup truck on a dark dirt road in Redwood Nat’l Park, where my partner and I took turns looking through a set of night-vision goggles at a round pen on an open hillside several hundred yards away. Green shapes moved through the night, edging toward the pen, where piles of apples acted as bait. When at least a dozen elk were inside the pen, we were supposed to trigger a radio-controlled gate which would shut them in. But the elk weren’t cooperating: only three or four would enter at once, then bolt out again. “Those canvas panels are flapping in the breeze,” said Al. “I’m taking a nap.”
At daybreak, the pen was empty and the elk were bedded down in front of it, chewing their cuds and glaring at us. I never saw any elk trapped, but other attempts were more successful, and in time 15 Roosevelt elk from the Park, plus two elderly captives from the Eureka Zoo, were brought to the head of Elk Creek, south of Happy Camp, held in a ten-acre pen for a couple of months, and then turned loose. And as if they remembered exactly where they were and what they should do, they headed upstream, into the Marble Mountain Wilderness.
That fall, on the opening weekend of deer season, a couple of novice hunters from the Bay Area shot the bull from the Eureka zoo, and a cow elk, but most of the other elk survived the winter, and in spring there were calves. By then, reports of other elk were beginning — the lookout on Orleans Mountain, forty miles west of Happy Camp, saw a few elk, and and on the Siskiyou Crest north of the River, above Horse Creek, migrants from an introduced population of Rocky Mountain elk near Klamath Falls were sighted.
In recent years the elk population in the Klamath Mountains has increased enough to allow for a draw hunt in the area, and events like those in the second photo — the Titus Fire of 2006 (U.S. Forest Service photo) that burned just east of the Bunker Hill area, are creating new elk habitat. The fires of the last few years are bigger, faster, hotter than almost anything I saw in the years I worked on the Klamath. But out of the ashes of those fires has come deerbrush, sprouting from long-dormant seeds, and thousands of acres of protein-rich food for deer and elk.
With the apex prey animal restored, it remains only for wolves to return. We know they were here, and not so long ago. My stepfather saw wolf tracks on a ridge north of the River in the 1960s. If only a few can run the gauntlet of Oregon, make it down the Cascades and then make a right turn, then in places like Titus Ridge and Dillon Creek and Elk Lick under Preston Peak, they will find prey, and cover, and steep country too heavily vegetated for ATVs. Best of all, there are virtually no cattle. If they can make it this far, the protected expanses of Redwood National Park would not be impossible for them. Keep your fingers crossed.