Harmon’s Histories: Bitterroot elk herds began with transplants from Yellowstone

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The elk herds of the Bitterroot Valley are impressive. Hundreds of the animals gathered in a field just off the Eastside Highway near Stevensville in the past few days.

There was a time when elk simply didn’t exist there. Not one. But they did exist nearby in huge numbers.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent P.W. Norris, in his 1877 report to the Secretary of the Interior, wrote: “Probably 7,000, or an annual average of 1,000 of them, and hundreds if not thousands of other animals have been killed since the Park’s discovery in 1870.”

He argued for funding and personnel to protect the elk.

Flash forward to January 1912 and we find little had changed. The Missoula Sentinel reported, “Thousands of elk are being wantonly killed in Montana this winter.”

The writer complained, “The government has thousands of soldiers loafing at western barracks, but only a feeble squadron or two are detailed to protect the park reserve.”

That’s when things changed.

In Hamilton, Dr. F.E. Buchen circulated a petition to raise money to bring three carloads of elk to the Rock Creek drainage. $300 was pledged almost immediately, including $100 from Marcus Daly.

Those behind the effort pointed out that the state had been forced to feed the elk in and near the park “to keep them from starving,” reported the Missoulian, “so it was thought that a large number could be turned out among the grass-covered hills of the Bitter Root.”

Missoula Sentinel, January 8, 1912

On March 7, 1912, the first carload of elk – 40 animals in all – was shipped from Gardiner to Hamilton. Two more shipments (to Stevensville and Thompson Falls) were to follow.

“A large crowd of cowboys” was gathered to assist in moving the elk from the train to the “Daly animal park,” where they were to be held for a time before being moved into the mountains east of Hamilton.

It didn’t go well. Huge crowds gathered along the tracks all the way up the Bitter Root, pushing in close to the sides of the cars, keeping the frightened animals “in a continual state of excitement.”

A number of the elk were injured or killed in the loading, transportation and unloading of the animals. Still, those involved in the efforts pointed out it was better than allowing them to stay near Yellowstone, where as many as 2,000 of them died of starvation the previous year.

By the time a second shipment was put together for Hamilton, handling-procedures were much improved and not a single animal was lost. Sheriff’s deputies kept any on-lookers at a safe distance.

The Missoulian, March 14, 1912

That second shipment totaled 40 elk, “three of which were five-point bulls, sixteen were calves, while the rest were cows. The cars were lined with sacking to protect the animals from people along the route.”

On arriving in Hamilton, with onlookers kept away, the elk “walked out of their own accord, none but the first calves to leave the cars needing urging. Not an elk was injured at all in the unloading.”

Meantime, the shipment of 56 elk ordered by the Stevensville Rod & Gun Club didn’t go that well – six didn’t survive the trip.

Once in Stevensville, though, the club’s preparations paid off. Special five-foot extensions were added to the stock fences so the animals couldn’t jump out and injure themselves.

Once the elk were ready for the move to the mountains, they were carefully loaded onto special wagons which had also been outfitted with high racks “and completely closed in on all four sides and top.”

Today, the herds thrive. The 2021 spring survey by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks put the Bitterroot elk population at something over 7,600.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.