Have there ever been elk in Louisiana?

Past Times By Terry Jones

I have always been fascinated by what Louisiana was like when French explorers first arrived here more than 300 years ago.

Their journals give colorful descriptions of a land filled with deer, buffalo, and bear, and some even include tantalizing evidence that elk might have been among the native species.

The eastern elk sub-species lived throughout much of the eastern U.S. According to H. E. Anthony’s authoritative Field Book of North America Mammals (1935) the elk’s native range was between 35˚ and 50˚ N. Latitude.

North Louisiana lies a few degrees south of this region.On the other hand, Dr. Lyle St. Amant’s Louisiana Wildlife Inventory and Management Plan (1959) claimed there might have been a moderate number of elk in the state’s heavily forested regions.

If elk were here, their remains should be in prehistoric Indian sites.

A check with several of the state’s archaeologists found that none of them had ever excavated elk bones during their careers. However, a couple did have vague recollections of hearing about elk bones being found in an Indian site.

The journals of French explorers are our best primary sources for identifying which animals were encountered here three centuries ago. Le Page du Pratz was one who specifically mentioned elk.

On a trip up the Mississippi River to the Chickasaw Cliffs (perhaps modern-day Vicksburg or Memphis), du Pratz reported seeing “nothing but herds of buffaloes, elk, deer, and other animas of every kind.”

On another occasion, du Pratz visited the rugged region around Natchez and Vicksburg. He described the open meadows and oak and hickory forests in the area and then wrote, “Those rising meadows and tall forests abound with buffalo, elk, and deer, with turkey, partridge, and all kinds of game. . . .”

If elk were roaming around Vicksburg and Natchez, would they have also been found on the Louisiana side of the river? Perhaps. It is known that herds of buffalo grazed on the prairies of northeast Louisiana, so why not elk?

On one trip up the Ouachita River, Du Pratz noted in his journal that he encountered the same animals there that he did east of the Mississippi River. That would have included elk.

Assuming elk were native to Louisiana, could they be restocked here like they have been in Arkansas?

With help from volunteers and the National Park Service, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission took elk from Colorado and Nebraska in 1981 and successfully relocated them along the Buffalo River in the Ozark Mountains.

Mike Cartwright, Arkansas’ elk program coordinator, said, “We approached it from a historical perspective. We knew from the archaeological record that elk were native to Arkansas and we have tried to restore such species of wildlife. Not just elk, but also buffalo bear, deer, and other native species.”

In recent years, Arkansas’ biologists have improved elk habitat by using controlled burns to reduce underbrush and to maintain open fields for grazing. As a result, there are hundreds of elk in the state today, and there has even been limited hunting since 1998.

Despite Arkansas’ success, however, Cartwright thinks it would be difficult to duplicate the program in Louisiana.“You need a lot of territory for elk,” he explained. “We know they are big movers because of radio collars we have put on some, and they move a lot more than we originally thought.”

“One bull elk we had a transmitter on was found to have a home range of 60,000 acres.”

“You really need a lot of public land to establish elk. One of the problems we have is the elk are beginning to move onto private land, and we’re starting to get complaints from landowners.”

The largest tract of public land in Louisiana is the 600,000-acre Kisatchie National Forest, but it is divided into several smaller tracts, and its habitat is not conducive to elk. Kisatchie might be great for deer with its piney hills, hardwood bottoms, and briar thickets, but it lacks the open meadows and grassy regions that are necessary for elk.

“Elk are big grazers, a lot like cattle, while deer browse,” Cartwright explained. “Elk need lots of grass and grass-like plants, so they have to have open areas.”

As a result, while elk might have once roamed parts of North Louisiana, it is not likely that we will ever see them again in the wild.


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