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Monday, March 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Majestic elk rule the rain forests

Seattle Times staff reporter

Elk-watching tips:

• Elk are most active in the early morning and evening as they feed. They bed down at midday. Winter offers some of the easiest elk viewing when the animals move into lowland river valleys.

• The easiest viewing is from a slow-moving car. If you stop the car or get out, the elk will likely run away. Try the North Shore and South Shore roads at Lake Quinault. Binoculars are very helpful.

• If you approach elk on foot, remember that their senses of smell and hearing are better than yours. Try to stay out of sight and remain downwind.

• Early or late in the day from about Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 are the best times to search and listen for rutting elk. Bull elk are very aggressive during the rut; always remain at least 300 feet away.

Source: "The Forest Elk" by Bruce B. Moorhead, 1994, Northwest Interpretive Association

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — For Roosevelt elk, a fine spring shower in the succulent rain forest is just their kind of day.

Native to the rain forests west of the Cascade range, the Roosevelt shakes the rain from its coat like a dog and stays warm and toasty inside a furry coat of hollow hair. That fur doubles as a buoyant life jacket: Elk are excellent swimmers; even 40-pound calves will bob like corks across jade-green rain-forest rivers.

These elk, Cervus elaphus roosevelti, can run as fast as a horse, even through timber, and are strong enough to break logs 6 inches in diameter — all on a vegetarian diet of about 60 pounds of greens a day.

Elk can be found west of the Cascades from British Columbia to Northern California. Their numbers have rebounded since the turn of the 20th century, when herds were depleted and nearly eliminated by unregulated hunting for meat, hides and teeth.

An avid hunter, President Theodore Roosevelt — for whom the elk are named — created Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909 to protect the elk. The area became Olympic National Park in 1938.

Today there are about 4,000 Roosevelt elk in the park, home to the largest undisturbed population of Roosevelts remaining in old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.

There are even more elk outside the park than in it, with about 8,000 Roosevelts roaming the Willapa Hills and about 9,000 outside the park on the Olympic Peninsula.

The lives of humans and elks have been intertwined since the elk first migrated across the Bering Land Bridge connecting Asia with Alaska more than 10,000 years ago and spread southward into North America.

Northwest Indians have depended on elk since time immemorial for bodily and spiritual sustenance, and still do.

"Hunting is not a sport to us, it is subsistence," said Guy Capoeman, a member of the Quinault Tribe who teaches cultural arts at Taholah School on the Quinault Reservation, Grays Harbor County.

"We look back to the creation story and it talks about the Maker making man, and then the elk to sustain them. We've existed here for thousands and thousands of years, and since that time we have been hunting elk."

Learning to track an elk means learning to be part of its spirit, said Wayne Barr, a Quinault Tribal Council member. While the tools to hunt elk today are different, the meaning and importance of the hunt is the same, Barr said. The tribe reserves easier hunting areas for its elders, and a child's age is counted not only in years but in when the child is strong enough to quarter and help pack out a Ti-iwatsi, or bull elk.

In aboriginal times, elk were an all-in-one hardware, clothing and grocery store, valued for bone, sinew and hide. They remain at the core of tribal cultural life today, their meat on the table, their hooves in rattles, their antlers gracing longhouses and their hide stretched across drums.

And the spiritual gifts of the elk abide.

"We have family songs that come directly from the spirit of the elk," Capoeman said. "They are sacred; it is our power that we have to use. Our ancestors passed it down to us. You can feel that power when you sing the song; it's real."

Elk were vital to white explorers and homesteaders, too. The Lewis and Clark expedition chose to winter at Fort Clatsop in Oregon in 1805-1806 in part because, sick of salmon, they knew they could feast on elk and fashion clothing and moccasins from the hides.

Massive and majestic, Roosevelt elk can jump 8-foot fences if frightened.

Roosevelts are the most talkative members of the deer family. In the fall, bull elk are known for their distinctive bugle, used to advertise their presence to females and their prowess to other bulls.

Trophy bulls can top 1,100 pounds and sport racks of antlers weighing more than 20 pounds, shed and regrown every year.

The cows, with their sumptuous curves, big wet noses and soft brown eyes are faithful to their home range, homesteading their patch of ground in the forest even through several generations.

Cow calves remain with their mothers, but bulls, beginning at about age 2, range far afield, remaining solitary until the rut in September, when they return to their home range to assemble harems of cows.

Bulls lose 30 percent of their body weight during the two-month rutting season, which peaks about the first week of October.

The bulls eat little during the rut and wear themselves out marshaling a harem of five to 15 cows, competing with other bulls for mates and shooing off satellite bulls that hang around the edges of the harem, trying to steal a few cows for themselves.

While most skirmishes are only that, heavy on drama but light on actual injuries, bulls sometimes fight to the death, inflicting fatal punishment with their antlers.

Cows, with their comparatively laid-back lifestyle, far outlive the bulls, enduring as long as 27 years, while a very old bull may be only 17.

Cows grow antlers only as a fluke, while bulls always sport them. Young bulls, called spikes, have but a single shoot of antler, while 2-year-old raghorns boast a small, branched display.

Only males in their sexual prime have the grand, backswept rack of antlers, made entirely of bone.

The young are born, usually one calf per cow, after a gestation of eight and a half months.

The spotted calves, born in mid-May to mid-June, come into the world with no scent — a defense against predators. The mother will leave a calf alone for about the first 10 days of its life, to avoid leaving her scent on the baby.

By instinct the calf knows to hide in the dappled spring grass where its spots are a good camouflage, waiting for its mother's daily visits to nurse.

Once its legs are strong, the calf accompanies its mother everywhere she goes; calves are not weaned until the fall.

Grazers by nature, Roosevelt elk have adapted to their rain-forest environment, learning to survive on the tender, young browse and grassy clearings created by windstorms, fire and the braiding and shifting of rivers, nature's own land-clearing equipment.

Roosevelts also have benefited from some human disturbance of the land. Some clearing from logging and farming has actually aided the elk by helping create the open areas the animals need to graze tender, new browse, said Jack Smith, wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"Logging is a double-edged sword," Smith said. Poaching can increase from the easier access logging roads provide. But some logging mimics the disturbances naturally created by wind, fire and shifting rivers.

Near towns, elk are vulnerable to cars. Elk roadkills on Highway 101 through Sequim, Clallam County, prompted erection of the first automated elk crossing signs in the nation, triggered by the proximity of radio-collared Roosevelts.

It's within the Olympic National Park or wilderness areas such as Quinault Ridge in the Colonel Bob Wilderness that large herds of Roosevelt elk can be seen in their natural environment, amid the gleaming white trunks of alder flats or moss-curtained groves of big leaf maple.

Deep in their home range, the elk rest and browse, moving as swiftly and silently as smoke into the dripping forest, snug, sleek and serene in their kingdom of green.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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