For an unknown millennia, the mountains of Appalachia were dominated by a massive deer known simply as “Wapiti”.
Far larger than the western elk beyond the Mississippi, Wapiti are said to have weighed up to 1,000 pounds, stood five feet tall and carried a rack of antlers six feet in length. By comparison, this is about six times the size of the largest whitetail bucks seen today in the nation’s eastern mountains.
To put it simply, these animals were massive!
As early European settlers began to establish relationships with the Native American tribes and seek to break down communications barriers, sign language often served as the first steps in doing this and one of the earliest words the natives taught white men was “Wapiti”, holding their hands to their head to indicate antlers.
By 1650, settlers in the New World had become fascinated with the creatures and soon, Virginia was known throughout Europe as being the place where elks were “bigger than oxen.”
Describing these deer, Theodore Roosevelt stated, “The wapiti is the largest and stateliest deer in the world. A full-grown bull is as big as a steer. The antlers are the most magnificent trophies yielded by any game animal of America, save the giant Alaskan moose. When full grown they are normally of twelve tines… The length, massiveness, roughness, spread, and symmetry of the antlers must all be taken into account in rating the value of a head. Originally it was found from the Pacific coast east across the Alleghanies, through New York to the Adirondacks, through Pennsylvania into Western New Jersey, and far down into the mid-country of Virginia and the Carolinas…”
In the years ahead, the Wapiti of Appalachia would become known simply as elk, more specifically, as Eastern Elk.
The pristine supremacy of these animals were second to none and as settlers topped the Blue Ridge and moved into Western Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia’s western counties just about every community named some landmass after these animals — Elk Creek, Elk Mountain, and Elk River can be easily found in just about every corner of Appalachia.
These animals were priced, admired, celebrated and hunted. Hunted extensively.
Sadly, these incredible animals were so prized by early settlers that by 1851 naturalist John James Audubon stated that a few elk could still be found in the Allegheny Mountains, but that they were virtually gone from the remainder of their range.
On September 1, 1877, the last eastern elk known to exist in the wild was shot in Pennsylvania. The subspecies was declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service three years later.
Despite the fact that eastern elk have been declared to be extinct for more than 140 years, there may be more remaining of these animals than just 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 by Native Americans. The possible eastern elk bloodline might explain some unusual characteristics observed in New Zealand elk, such as “bifurcated” antlers in which the dagger, or fourth point, forks at the tip.
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.
Though it is unclear if the Watapi of Appalachia are still alive in New Zealand or the back country of Ontario, what is clear is that even as incredible as the new elk that have been introduced into the region over the past few decades, the western elk, are a far cry from the majestic animals that once ruled the forests of the Appalachian Mountains.
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