The Roosevelt is an ominous creature of the deep woods, a half-ton wraith of a beast that vanishes with the dull clump of a hoof or the soft clack of an antler on maple or pine.
Named after President and turn-of-the-century conservationist Theodore Roosevelt, this elk is one of six subspecies native to North America.
The others: The American (Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain) elk boasts by far the largest range and greatest numbers. Before European settlement of the continent, American elk inhabited most of its western half. Even then, when as many as 10 million elk might have existed, no other subspecies was so numerous. Nearly all elk transplants, from before World War I to the present, on native Western ranges and in designated elk habitat farther east, have drawn from American elk herds in and around Yellowstone National Park.
Tule elk frequent small areas of coastal California. All but wiped out by settlers during the late 19th century, they were saved by local rancher Henry Miller who, in 1874, set aside some of his land as an elk refuge. Tule elk are hunted now-but lightly. Recent estimates show a total population of fewer than 4,000 animals. The good news is that the herds have been growing steadily.
Manitoba elk grow about as big as Roosevelt elk-which is to say that they're the biggest elk, with mature bulls sometimes scaling more than 1,000 pounds live weight. They once roamed from central Canada south to Oklahoma, but agricultural development has gobbled up their range. Now a stable herd of around 10,000 remains on small islands of habitat (mostly in provincial parks) in central Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Eastern elk succumbed to early white settlement. John James Audubon, while painting birds during the early 1800s, saw few Eastern elk. Though some would argue that it is not extinct, the subspecies was probably gone before automobiles appeared. American elk have been transplanted to many places that once held Eastern elk.
Merriam elk lived mainly in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila. Nowhere were they plentiful. Evidently, herds had begun to diminish even before settlers and market hunters exacted their toll. The last Merriam elk sighting occurred before 1906.
The Roosevelt elk survived unregulated hunting in part because of its habitat: dense conifer, alder and maple jungles from northern California to Alaska. Some of this cover qualifies as rainforest; most of it blankets steep terrain. It's easy to spend a lot of time in prime Roosevelt elk cover without seeing a bull.
While British Columbia yields a big Roosevelt bull from time to time, more than 90 percent of the 50,000 elk in that province are American elk. California's token herd of around 4,000 Roosevelt elk is more than double Alaska's. So it's no wonder why hunters go to Oregon and Washington. By recent estimate, Oregon has nearly 60,000 Roosevelt elk. Washington claims about 30,000-excepting Oregon, more than all other states and provinces combined. These 80,000 to 90,000 animals comprise about half the total elk population in Oregon and Washington, and all live west of the Cascade summit. Some interbreeding with American elk occurs in the Cascade Range (so, too, with black-tailed and mule deer). For record-keeping purposes, Interstate 5, a highway skirting the west hem of the Cascades, is the dividing line.
In Oregon, it's easier to get a tag for Roosevelt elk than for American elk. All east-side, first-season hunts now have tag quotas filled by lottery. You can buy general-season west-side tags over the counter. In Washington, tags for both Roosevelt and American elk are available without application. Of course, the most desirable hunting units in both states have hunter quotas, with permits allocated by lottery. Hunting seasons for riflemen occur in November. Archers and blackpowder shooters have other options, beginning as early as August and running into December. Mind the point restrictions on bulls-they vary by unit.
Hunting Roosevelt elk is a lot like hunting any other elk. Camp near the elk, but not where you expect to find them. Elk are mobile and will move from an area that you've disturbed. Get up early so that you can distance yourself from hunting pressure before sunup. Use your binoculars. Yes, even if the cover is thick, you'll pick up more detail with your glasses than with your naked eye. In the forest, focus your binoculars at 40 yards. If you stop at a clear-cut's edge for lunch, refocus. Stay afield as long as you can, moving on elk trails and skid roads.
Bushwhacking is not only hard work-it's next to impossible in some coastal cover-it puts noise and movement where elk don't expect, either. Right away they'll know that you're a hunter and they'll slink away. Also, moving off-trail can get you lost. Roosevelt elk live where deep clefts and impenetrable thickets can suddenly force detours. And the tall vegetation won't give you the panoramic Montana vistas so commonly associated with elk hunting. Stay on trails, however faint.
Many rookie Roosevelt elk hunters are confounded by the lack of broad, smooth thoroughfares common in the Rockies. Those paths are established in dry places, where vegetation trampled last week isn't already replaced by new growth; where winters are cold and main routes are kept open by horse and cattle traffic.
In west-side elk country, winters are mild. Rainfall can exceed 100 inches a year. Scuff your toe in the dirt, and something will start growing. There's scant horse traffic through the vine-maple snarls threading Oregon's Coast Range or among the ancient conifers of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. No cattle, either. Those thick places are where the big elk live. You penetrate by winding your way along ground contours marked by tunnels in the alders and places where the ferns and maples see a tad more sunlight.
A trail can disappear where elk have moved off to forage or bed. To find another, you thrash and scramble. "Uphill is best," advised my friend, Vern, who showed me his favorite coverts a couple of years ago. "You just grab anything that doesn't look like a banana-sized slug and start churning."
Level spots are scarce between game trails, and descending makes no sense in cover thick enough to hide a precipice the size of Victoria Falls. So up you go, through mud you wish that you'd had as a youngster, and plants with leaves as thick as cardboard and stems like ropes. There's devil's club, too, and salal, the rainforest equivalent of cactus. You try to be quiet at first. But you finish each day attacking jungle slopes with your rifle between your teeth, growling insanely. Killing a Roosevelt elk exacts a level of dedication seldom found among gentlemen who hunt with dignity from white wall tents pitched at meadow's edge in the Rockies.
You'll rightly surmise that shooting under such conditions can be close. So close, in fact, that many Roosevelt elk hunters don't use scopes. Iron sights work fine where ranges are measured in feet. "Sometimes you get a shot by running after elk," Vern explained. "I did that not long ago, after they blew out in front of me. They were almost close enough to touch, but the brush was so thick that I couldn't see 'em. Well, they hadn't seen me either, and they evidently wanted another whiff of my scent. They stopped, and I burst upon them so suddenly that they stood in shock long enough for me to shoot."
The key, he insists, is to stay with them when they're moving. "Their commotion will drown out any noise that you make. Let 'em get too far ahead, and when they stop, they'll figure you out before you get close enough for a decent shot."
If such tactics sound a bit rigorous, you might want to limit your still-hunting and instead wait for an elk to poke its nose into a clear-cut.
Another hunter, Dale, did that last year. Recovering from recent hip surgery, he had no choice but to sit. And he sat for four days without seeing a bull. Then, on the last morning on his hunt, a herd of elk sifted from cover 100 yards away. The raghorn bull stayed in the shadows, partly hidden by brush and other elk. A group of cows edged Dale's way and bumped into his scent pool. They instantly bounded off, and the rest of the herd moved to join them. Dale's Model 70 was ready when the bull came clear, antlers now plainly visible. He fired as the elk crossed the clear-cut. His .338 Nosler pierced the bull's heart. A just reward for stump-side patience!
Whether you push into the jungles of the Pacific Northwest or wait patiently at their hem, hunting Roosevelt elk will test your fortitude. The reward is worth the effort, though-a chance that the bull that you see will have grown big and undiscovered where few hunters make a footprint.
By 1905, there were 145 tule elk on Miller's land and, as elk will, they were beginning to make a nuisance of themselves, ruining fences and trampling crops. In 1914, 146 of the offenders were captured and relocated to 19 different sites in California. Unfortunately, by 1940 there were elk surviving in only three of these areas. And even as low in numbers as these remaining elk were, they were still causing damage to ranches, farms and, according to some reports, even golf courses.
In 1971, in order to address the complaints, the California government decided that it was time to relocate the elk one more time. And so, throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s, tule elk by the hundreds were moved to more suitable habitat. Incredibly, their population grew from 600 animals in 1970 to the present day number of 3,400. In 1987 the tule elk hunting season was re-opened, and in 1998 it was officially recognized as a separate big game subspecies by the Boone and Crockett Club.
In 2000 I was sitting in Nolan's truck looking at a significant percentage of the tule elk population; wondering if there was a big enough bull and just how the heck Nolan expected me to sneak close enough for a shot with my Knight muzzleloader.
"Nothing big enough," Nolan said as he glassed the countryside. "Tomorrow we'll head for ‘hell.'"
Nolan was referring to the side of the ranch that fell away steeply to the flatlands of the Central Valley.
"Oh wonderful; ‘hell,' that sounds like a lot of fun."
Actually, "hell" wasn't all that bad, other than the tarantulas and blistering 105-degree heat. Spending eternity there would have been relatively pleasurable in light of all the elk that we were seeing. Here an elk, there an elk, everywhere that we looked we would see elk. Early in the mornings, we'd hear them bugling and would work our way closer, trying to pick them out of the thickets on the steep side-hills. Several of the bulls that we located were large, well above the B&C minimum score of 285 needed to make the all-time record book; none, however, would allow me to crawl within 100 yards.
It wasn't until the sixth day that we found a magnificent old bull that wanted to see its picture in North American Hunter. After a long stalk and two-hour wait for the bull to come to Nolan's calling, I touched the trigger and sent the Nosler bullet on its devastating way. The bull dropped where it had been standing, less than 60 yards away.