Bringing in 15 elk form Wyoming in 1912 wasn't without controversy
The haze of history sometimes obscures controversy.
The highly publicized elk shipped to Wallowa County from Wyoming in March 1912 is an example. Many accounts about the transplant today celebrate the event.
And for good reason.The 15 elk from Wyoming that were released in Wallowa County on March 19, 1912, helped revive Northeast Oregon’s decimated elk population.
What is often forgotten, though, is that the sheep industry initially strongly opposed the transplant.
Michael Andrews, a writer from Gresham who grew up in La Grande, brings the forgotten issue to light in a new book, “The Zumwalt: Writings from the Prairie.’’ Andrews, one of eight contributors to the anthology, writes in illuminating detail about the 1912 transplant and the controversy it sparked in the chapter, “A Grand Animal’s Return To The Prairie.’’
Andrews said sheep owners voiced objections to the transplant, which resulted in elk being brought to a 2,560-acre, fence-enclosed area at Billy Meadows, about 45 miles north of Joseph. This upset sheep owners because the transplant meant they would be kicked out of the enclosure.
“We who have been in here for years and who believe have done our part making the county a producer of wealth, feel that to turn the grazing land into a game preserve is a step backward,’’ Jay Dobbin said in a 1912 edition of the Wallowa County Chieftain.
The enclosure at Billy Meadows had been set up years earlier for a grazing and plant succession study. The fence was put up as part of a study to see if the enclosure could protect sheep from predators. The fence kept coyotes out but not bears, which climbed over it and were able to reach sheep, Andrews said.
Sheep men had been using the enclosure for years. They thus “felt entitled to continued use of the pasture,’’ Andrews wrote.
This explains why sentiment against the elk transplant by sheep men and stockmen was initially
“The local sheep industry was in its zenith and jealous of prerogatives,’’ wrote Andrews, a retired high school English teacher.
Leaders in the sheep industry not only believed they were entitled to use of the enclosure, they also argued that the elk would offer little to the region.
“The elk is a grand animal, and we all admire him, but he is destined to go the way of his big brother, the buffalo. His place is in parks and museums, preserving the memory of Oregon undeveloped,’’ Dobbin was quoted in “The Zumwalt.’’
Still, work on the transplant continued. Andrews said more sheep raisers warmed to the idea of the transplant as it approached, but not Dobbin. He remained skeptical of sites set up to protect wildlife.
“Game reserves in their final analysis are the reserves of the aristocracy, and have but little place in a democracy. They contribute nothing to the nation’s wealth, and furnish no food ... or shelter to any human being,’’ Dobbin said during the winter of the transplant.
George Cheney, owner and editor of the Chieftain, was “firmly in Dobbin’s camp,’’ Andrews said. The only reasons for preserving elk, he wrote, were “sentimental and educational.’’
Cheney doubted that the elk would serve an educational purpose because of Wallowa County’s location, which he described as “one of the most remote spots under the American flag.’’
Still, the transplant went forward. Fifteen elk were captured in Wyoming and brought to Wallowa County by train. They were then hauled in horse-drawn wagons to Billy Meadows, a trip that took several days.The elk were brought by the state under the direction of state game warden William Finley.
The elk, boosted by a similar 1913 transplant, thrived within their enclosure. By 1917 the number of elk in the enclosure had grown to 70. So high was the total that state game officials began taking elk from Billy Meadows and transporting them to other areas of the state. The first was conducted in January 1917 when 18 elk were captured and shipped to Crater Lake, Andrews said.
The flourishing population within the enclosure was most welcome news considering five years earlier elk were nearly extinct in Northeast Oregon. Andrews writes that reports of the number of elk in Wallowa County varied widely at the time. Some people said that elk were extinct, one said there were six in Wallowa County and another said there were 17 in the Chesnimnus forest reserve.
A 1912 report from the state labor commissioner’s office said there were 930 elk in Oregon, including 45 in Wallowa County. It is not known if this total included the 15 that arrived that year from Wyoming.
By 1919 there were 90 adults and 40 yearling calves in the enclosure. The state decided to let the elk out of the Billy Meadows enclosure following the winter of 1919-20. Some of the elk were taken to Wallowa Lake.
The animals were safe from humans outside the enclosure since elk hunting had been banned in Oregon since 1909. By 1933 elk populations had increased to the point that the state conducted its first elk season in 24 years. A three-day season was conducted in Union, Baker and Umatilla counties plus much of Wallowa County, which had an estimated 3,000 elk, Andrews said.
Today Wallowa County has thousands of elk, some of which undoubtedly are descendants of those that came in the 1912 and 1913 transplants. It will never be known how much the transplants spring-boarded Northeast Oregon’s elk population. It did play a role and added a remarkable chapter to the region’s wildlife history.
“The Zumwalt: Writings from the Prairie’’ was published earlier this year. It is a collection of writings of participants of Don Snow’s Summer Fishtrap 2006. Snow is a senior lecturer of environmental humanities and general studies at Whitman College.
Fishtrap is a 20-year-old Oregon organization whose purpose is “promoting clear thinking and good writing in and about the West.’’ Fishtrap sessions are conducted each summer in Wallowa County. “The Zumwalt: Writings of the Prairie,’’ was published by Fishtrap Inc. The book is available at The Bookloft in Enterprise.