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Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence for the Natural Occurence of Elk in Texas

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Free-ranging elk, Cervus canadensis are found today in the Trans-Pecos region of Far West Texas. Throughout the twentieth century and until now, most wildlife biologists believed that elk were only native to the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas and, therefore, that the current elk are exotic imports, rather than a native species and subspecies. We present eyewitness accounts and reports from 1601 to 1905 documenting the historical presence of native elk throughout Texas; archaeological discoveries of elk bones, antlers, teeth, and paleofeces that indicate the presence of elk in Texas since the Pleistocene; historical reports of elk antlers found on the ground or in archaeological excavations; and examples of prehistoric rock art depicting native elk. We also present morphological, statistical, and DNA evidence to refute the idea that there was a separate species or subspecies called Merriam’s elk that once inhabited the Guadalupe Mountains. DNA research indicates that today’s free-ranging elk in the Davis and Glass Mountains are the result of the natural immigration of elk from the Lincoln National Forest of New Mexico, just north of the Texas border, to recolonize areas of their former native range in the Trans-Pecos. The evidence presented substantiates the presence of native elk throughout Texas prior to the extirpation that occurred in the nineteenth century and demonstrates that they were not only the same species, but also the same subspecies, as the elk in and east of the Rocky Mountains today—Cervus canadensis canadensis.
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Journal of
Big Bend Studies
Journal of
Big Bend Studies
Volume 28
Center for Big Bend Studies
Sul Ross State University
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THE TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM™
2016
Journal of Big Bend Studies
ISSN 1058-4617
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able
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Contents
Late Paleoindian Occupations at the Genevieve Lykes
Duncan Site, Brewster County, Texas
William A. Cloud, Richard W. Walter, Charles D. Frederick, and
Robert J. Mallouf ...................................................................................1
The Texas National Guard in the Big Bend During the
Mexican Revolution, 19161917
Thomas Ty Smith ..................................................................................83
Apollo Astronaut Training in the Big Bend
Pat Dasch ........................................................................................... 111
Entering and Exiting a Troubled Paradise: Big Bend
Births and Deaths on the Eve of World War II
Paul Wright ............................................................................................... 133
Among the First: Hispanic American Soldiers During
the Mexican Revolution
Christopher Thrasher .........................................................................173
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological
Evidence for the Natural Occurence of Elk in Texas
Richardson B. Gill, Christopher Gill, Reeda Peel,
and Javier Vasquez ................................................................................... 205
v
Are Elk Native to Texas?
Historical and Archaeological
Evidence for the Natural
Occurence of Elk in Texas
Richardson B. Gill, Christopher Gill, Reeda Peel, and
Javier Vasquez
Free-ranging elk, Cervus canadensis are found today in the Trans-Pecos region of
Far West Texas. Throughout the twentieth century and until now, most wildlife bi-
ologists believed that elk were only native to the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas and,
therefore, that the current elk are exotic imports, rather than a native species and
subspecies. We present eyewitness accounts and reports from 1601 to 1905 docu-
menting the historical presence of native elk throughout Texas; archaeological
discoveries of elk bones, antlers, teeth, and paleofeces that indicate the presence of
elk in Texas since the Pleistocene; historical reports of elk antlers found on the ground
or in archaeological excavations; and examples of prehistoric rock art depicting
native elk. We also present morphological, statistical, and DNA evidence to refute
the idea that there was a separate species or subspecies called Merriam’s elk that
once inhabited the Guadalupe Mountains. DNA research indicates that today’s free-
ranging elk in the Davis and Glass mountains are the result of the natural immigra-
tion of elk from the Lincoln National Forest of New Mexico, just north of the Texas
border, to recolonize areas of their former native range in the Trans-Pecos. The
evidence presented substantiates the presence of native elk throughout Texas prior
205
206
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
to the extirpation that occurred in the nineteenth century and demonstrates that they
were not only the same species, but also the same subspecies, as the elk in and east
of the Rocky Mountains todayCervus canadensis canadensis.
Introduction
Vernon Bailey, the chief field naturalist of the Bureau of Biological Survey,
U.S. Department of Agriculture, stated in his influential Biological Survey of
Texas, published in 1905, “There are no wild elk to-day in the State of Texas,
but years ago, as several old ranchmen have told me, they ranged south to the
southern part of the Guadalupe Mountains, across the Texas line” (Bailey
1905:60). Bailey’s assertion has been interpreted to mean that there were never
any native elk in Texas, except in the Guadalupe Mountains. A strict reading of
his claim, however, is that there were no wild elk in Texas in 1905which was
true. He did not say there were never wild elk anywhere else in Texas.
Unfortunately, the misinterpretation of Bailey’s statement has informed
most wildlife biologists since 1905. As it has been taken as common knowledge
that native Texas elk were restricted to the Guadalupe Mountains, the interpre-
tation of archaeological evidence in the rest of the state has been influenced by
this misinterpretation. Assuming elk to be nonnative, archaeologists have been
reluctant to identify large, ancient mammal bones as possibly those of elk.1
Biologist Del Weniger presented evidence of the natural occurrence of elk in
Texas in his book, The Explorers’ Texas: The Animals They Found, but his work
has been largely ignored (Weniger 1997:4651).
Most wildlife biologists have believed the elk present in the Trans-Pecos
today to be descendants of imported nonnative elk (e.g., Pohler et al. 2014:466).
To further compound the problem, the 1997 Texas Legislature statutorily defined
elk as an exotic, nonnative species.2 This designation has affected wildlife
management policies in the state. Elk are treated as exotic animals on public
lands in Texas and, as such, are subject to being and have been “lethally removed”
(TPWD 2006:13, 22, 24; Pittman 2010:13, 26, 28, 36; Mike Pittman, e-mail to
Richardson Gill August 30, 2012).
1.
Some unidentified bones in the Texas Archeological Sites Atlas reports have been
described as “large mammal bones,” some as “larger than deer,” and one as “deer-bison”
(http://nueces.thc.state.tx.us/).
2.
Elk are defined as nonindigenous in two statutes of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart-
ment (TPWD) Code: Section 43.103(3): Definitions (p. 300) and Section 62.015(a):
Hunting and Possession of Exotic Animals (p. 427). www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/
SDocs/PARKSANDWILDLIFECODE.pdf, Internet, accessed February 2017.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 207
Elk belong to the large family of deer, the Cervidae, which includes red
deer, white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, reindeer or caribou, and other deer
in Asia and Europe. Within this family, elk belong to the largest genus, Cervus,
the most widespread and best-known deer in the world. DNA studies by Chris-
tian Ludt and his colleagues (2004:1064, 1074, 1075) indicate that the first
ancestors of today’s red deer and elk appeared as early as 25 million years ago
in central Asia between Kyrgyzstan and northern India, most likely near the
Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. They ultimately spread across
the Northern Hemisphere to Europe, across Asia, and into North America. Elk
appear to have moved across the Bering Land Bridge into North America during
the Illinoian glacial maximum (300,000130,000 B.P.3), when the first elk fossils
appear in Alaska. They spread into central North America during the subsequent
interglacial Sangamonian stage, between 125,000 and 75,000 years B.P. (Guthrie
1966:50, 5354; Bryant and Maser 1985:9–11; O’Gara and Dundas 2002:82).
Texas was most likely the southern limit of the native range of North
American elk in today’s U.S. There are no reliable reports of elk fossils or reli-
able historical sightings south of Texas in Mexico (Carrera and Ballard 2003).
However, northern Mexico is poorly known archaeologically and historical
records are widely scattered and not easily accessed. Thus, negative data from
the region is not conclusive evidence for an absence of elk.
Free-ranging elk (Fig. 1), Cervus canadensis (Mattioli 2011:423), classified
by some in the past as Cervus elaphus (e.g., Ellerman and Morrison-Scott
1951:367), can be found today in many of the mountain chains in the Trans-
Pecos region of Texas. They are mostly descendants of elk that migrated from
New Mexico (Dunn 2016:1617)), although a few are descendants of elk that
were imported from other areas of North America and released by the Texas Parks
and Wildlife Department (TPWD) or onto ranches by landowners (Witt 2008:1
2). In 2008 Dr. Elizabeth Cary Mungall, science officer for the Second Ark
Foundation, adjunct professor at Texas Woman’s University, and author of Exotic
Animal Field Guide: Nonnative Hoofed Animals in the United States, estimated
the number of free-ranging elk in Texas at 1,621 including 1,246 in the Trans-
Pecos region (E.C. Mungall, e-mail to R. Gill, August 17, 2011). In addition,
there are herds behind high fences on private ranches throughout the state.
3.
B.P. is the acronym for “before present.” It denotes a time scale used in archaeology and
other scientific disciplines to reference when events occurred in the past. It is used in
radiocarbon dating, and standard practice is to use January 1, 1950, as the “present” or
origin of this age scale.
208
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
But is it true that the only native elk in Texas were in the Guadalupe Moun-
tains? In this paper, we present historical sightings and reports of the presence
of elk in other areas of Texas beginning in 1601, archaeological reports of elk
bones and antlers, historical reports of elk antlers found on the ground, and
prehistoric rock art depicting native elk. This body of evidence substantiates
the presence of native elk in Texas from the Panhandle in the north to the Lower
Rio Grande Valley in the south and from East Texas to the Trans-Pecos prior
to the extirpation that occurred in the nineteenth century.
We also present morphological and statistical evidence, as well as DNA
studies that strongly suggest that the elk that lived throughout the state prior to
being extirpated in the 1800s were the same species and subspecies of elk found
in Texas today. In other words, today’s free-ranging elk in the Trans-Pecos are
not an exotic speciesthey are a native species that has repopulated areas of
its former range through natural migration.
Historical
Evidence
We conducted an ex-
tensive search of his-
torical elk sightings
and reports in libraries
and in Google Books
and Google Scholar.
Each sighting/report
was carefully re-
viewed and evaluated.
They are presented
chronologically from
1601 to 1868the
date of the last report-
ed sighting. The only
potential subsequent
report of elk in Texas
is Bailey’s report from
the Guadalupe Moun-
tains (see Introduc-
tion); while no date is
Figure 1. Elk (Cervus canadensis) at Circle Ranch, Sierra
Diablo, Hudspeth County, Far West Texas. Photograph by
Christopher Gill.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 209
associated with this report, we estimate it to be ca. 1880. Sport hunting and,
undoubtedly, market hunting took their toll on the elk and by 1905 there were
no native elk left anywhere in Texas.
The quotes we present were taken directly from diaries and journals. No
corrections were made for spelling or grammar. In a few instances, to aid in
understanding, words and distances (in metric and English units) have been
inserted in brackets. Additionally, the sightings and reports are grouped by
region and tabulated in Table 1. The date or estimated date of the sighting is
listed, if known; otherwise, we list the publication date. Recorded fauna associ-
ated with each elk sighting is also listed.
Spanish Period
1601: Texas Panhandle
The earliest recorded sighting of elk in Texas occurred in 1601. The Spanish
governor of New Mexico, don Juan de Oñate, embarked on an exploration of
lands to the northeast of Santa Fe. He started from the capital of New Mexico,
San Juan de los Caballeros,4 and traveled to the Canadian River, which he fol-
lowed across the Texas Panhandle to today’s Texas-Oklahoma border (Bolton
1908:255n2). Along the way, Oñate described seeing a new kind of deer:
This river [the Canadian] is thickly covered on all sides with these
cattle [bison] and with another not less wonderful, consisting of deer
which are as large as large horses. They travel in droves of two and
three hundred and their deformity causes one to wonder whether they
are deer or some other animal.
Having travelled to reach this place one hundred and eleven leagues
[617 kilometers (km), 383 miles (mi)], it became necessary to leave
the river, as there appeared ahead some sand dunes; and turning from
the east to the north, we travelled up a small stream until we discov-
ered the great plains covered with innumerable cattle (de Oñate
1601:255).
4.
New Mexico’s first capital, San Juan de los Caballeros, was later known as San Juan
Pueblo, and today is known by its pre-Hispanic name, Ohkay Owingeh.
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Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
1654: Central Texas
In 1654, Sergeant Major Diego de Guadalajara and a group of 30 soldiers and
about 200 Christian Native Americans traveled to the Jumano lands on the
Concho River. When the Spaniards wanted to proceed on their journey, the
Jumano informed them that there was a conflict involving the Cuitoa, Excanx-
aque, and Ayado. Guadalajara remained on the Concho with the Jumanos, but
sent Captain Andrés López with 12 soldiers to the lands 30 leagues (125 km,
78 mi) east of the Concho, probably between present-day Brady and Brown-
wood, where they found a ranchería or village of the Cuitoa. The Spanish
engaged the Cuitoa in battle, captured 200 prisoners, and took 200 bundles of
deer,5 elk, and buffalo hides (Wade 2003:74). The battle and the booty were
reported by Fray Alonso de Posada, who was a missionary in New Mexico from
1651 to 1661 and the custodian of missions in New Mexico between 1661 and
1664 (Fernández Duro 1882:5354, 5859).6
1759: North Texas
On March 16, 1758, an estimated force of 2,000 allied Taovayas, Comanches,
Tonkawas, and Hasinais attacked Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá near Menard,
Texas, killing the priest and 18 others (Hämäläinen 2008:59). In response, the
viceroy ordered a punitive campaign to attack a Taovaya settlement on the Red
River. On September 7, 1759, the Spanish force departed the San Sabá mission.
With them was Captain Juan Angel de Oyarzún and his company of 50 men
from San Luis Potosí. In his diary, de Oyarzún wrote that on September 30, the
troop arrived at a creek they named Arroyo de los Buros, or Elk Creek, just
beyond the West Fork of the Trinity River, probably in Jack County, northwest
of present day Fort Worth. The entry from de Oyarzún’s diary reads:
This day also dawned cloudy and with cold wind; but the march was
undertaken in a northeasterly direction, and six leagues were traveled
over plains with a few extended hills. In view from the right side
5.
The Spanish word used in the original document is gamuza, which is normally translated
today as antelope or suede. In Central Texas, however, we believe gamuza more likely
refers to deerskin.
6.
Alonso is alternately spelled as Alonzo; Posada is alternately spelled as Posadas (Fernán-
dez Duro 1882:53; Tyler and Taylor 1958:288n1). Tyler and Taylor reviewed a manuscript
copy of a document authored by Posada in the Archivo General de la Nación Mexico,
Historia, Tomo 3, in which his name is spelled Posada. We follow that spelling in this
article.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 211
were some live-oak woods. It has grama grass and other species,
green and tall, bears and many buffalo, some deer of the common
kind, and the large ones called buros, rabbits, hares and many pools
of rainwater.
In the vicinity of one of these [ponds], camp was made today, and
scouts were dispatched to the Laguna Grande. Other measures also
were taken for protection of the horse herds and for the prompt de-
parture of the troop, if necessary. This watering place was recognized
as that of the buros for the many it maintains. This species resembles
deer, although its body and antlers are larger. As a rule they are, when
grown, like a medium-sized horse, and the antlers ordinarily attain
the height of two varas [1.7 meters (m) or 5.5 feet (ft)]. For this reason
the Comanche Indians use them to make bows for their arrows. The
color of the hair is dark bay, and because every year they shed the
horns, some were found in the countryside, and one that we found
was nearly two varas long and had fourteen points (de Oyarzún
1759:119).
The word buronot to be confused with burro, or donkeywas the term
used by de Oyarzún to designate elk (Weddle 2007:111, 2325). It should also
be noted that venado bura today refers to a mule deer, but mule deer do not
have 1.7-m (5.5-ft) antlers that can be made into bows, as de Oyarzún observed.
Clearly, the meanings of buro and bura during the Spanish period were differ-
ent from their meanings today and meant elk.
1767: North Texas
Jean Brevel claims to have traveled along the Red River to near its headwaters
and thence to Santa Fe in 1767.7 Dr. John Sibley wrote a letter to General Henry
Dearborn in 1805 in which he reported a conversation that he had with Brevel
regarding his trip. Brevel was the son of a French father and Caddo mother. He
was born and raised among the Cadodaquious, a Caddo group in North Texas.
7. Dan Flores, a historian at the University of Montana, believed the story of Brevel’s trip to
Santa Fe to be “almost certainly a fabrication” (Flores 1984:22). Regardless, as he was
raised on the Red River in northeast Texas, it is reasonable to expect that he would be
familiar with the area, whether he made it to Santa Fe or not. We are inclined to accept
Brevel’s description of the fauna along the Red River.
212
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
His father was stationed at Poste des Cadodaquious, a French fort in Bowie
County, northwest of Texarkana on the Red Riverthe exact location has not
been found (Shipp 1881:665; Britton 2010). Below is Sibley’s description of
his conversation with Brevel. The confluence of the Blue and Red rivers lies
about 160 km (100 mi) west of his home.
I asked him [Brevel] what animals were found in the Great prairies.
He told me, that from Blue river, upwards, on both sides of Red river,
there were innumerable quantities of wild horses, buffaloe, bears,
wolves, elk, deer, foxes, sangliers or wild hogs, antelope, white hares,
rabbits, &c. . . . (Sibley 1805a:71).
1772: East Texas
Athanase de Mézières was a captain in the French army at Natchitoches, in the
French colony of Louisiana, when it passed from French to Spanish rule in
1763. Discharged from the French army, he offered his service to the Spanish
crown, and in late 1769 he was appointed lieutenant governor of Natchitoches
(Chipman 2010). In 1772 he undertook an expedition, traveling across Texas
from San Antonio to Natchitoches. In describing the part of the trip between
Nacogdoches and the Sabine River, he made the following observation about
the Province of Texas:
This very large province can compete with the most fertile and pro-
ductive. It produces in abundance beans, maize, large and small stock,
buffalo, deer, red deer,8 wild goats, turkeys, wild hogs, partridges,
hares, rabbits, and other species of both quadrupeds and birds, which
have served us in this long journey for recreations as well as for
sustenance (de Mézières 1772:309).
1788: North Texas
Early French explorer Pierre Viallater known as Pedro Vialwas a remark-
able pathfinder in the Spanish Southwest. During the early 1780s, he lived
among the Taovayas on the Red River before appearing in San Antonio in 1784.
8. According to Bryant and Maser (1985:1), red deer is one of the names used in the past for
elk. Red deer (Cervus elaphus) and elk (Cervus canadensis) have a similar appearance.
Off and on until recently, elk were considered by some, but not all, taxonomists to be part
of the red deer species (see the appendix).
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 213
The Spanish governor selected him in 1786 to find the most direct route between
San Antonio and Santa Fe and undertook his trip in 1787. His diary, written in
French, was delivered in 1788 to Louis de Blanc, de Mézières’ nephew and the
commandant at Natchitoches (Loomis and Nasatir 1967: xvxvi). De Blanc
translated the diary and sent a report to the commandant of the Provincias In-
ternas, or Interior Provinces. In the report, de Blanc made the following state-
ments:
If for the royal service it should be desirable to send aid from here to
New Mexico, it is indispensable to establish a post in the Taovaya
villages with a good garrison and an experienced commandant to
protect the road . . . He [Vial] also noted that the Taovayas raised
corn, beans, squashes, melons, and sandillas [watermelons]; in the
country, he said, were buffaloes, venados and ciervos, bears and
puercos montes [wild boars]. It was a fine country he said with rivers,
fish, and lots of water, and beaver and nutrias [otters] (in Loomis and
Nasatir 1967:350).
In modern Spanish, venado and ciervo are used synonymously. However,
in the 1739 edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua Castellana de la Real
Academia Española (Dictionary of the Castilian Language of the Royal Spanish
Academy), venado is defined as Especie de ciervo parecido á él, casi del
tamaño de un caballo. Cervus. We translate this definition as follows: “A kind
of deer similar to it, almost the size of a horse. Cervus.Vial used the words
ciervo and venado to distinguish two different animalsvenado, almost the
size of a horse, and ciervo, a deer. Vial was evidently referring to elk and deer.
It is interesting to note that de Oyarzún placed elk in the vicinity of the Taovaya
villages 28 years earlier.
1800: Central Texas
In October 1800, Ellis P. Bean accompanied Philip Nolan on an expedition into
Texas to round up wild horses. The commandant of the Spanish garrison at
Nacogdoches evidently believed that Nolan was a filibuster intent on freeing
Texas from Spanish rule. On March 21, 1801, the Spanish attacked Nolan and
his 27 men at their encampment in Hill or McClennan County, along a tributary
of the Brazos River in the Waco-Hillsboro area. Nolan was killed by a bullet to
the head during the battle (Jackson 2010a, 2010b). Bean, just 18 years old at
214
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
the time, was Nolan’s second-in-command. He survived the engagement, but
was captured and imprisoned in Mexico (Weems 2010). In his memoirs, he
recounts the following:
In about six days journey, we came to Trinity river and, crossing it,
we found the big, open prairies of that country. . . . But we found that
the buffalo had removed, and were getting so scarce, that, in three
days after passing the spring, we were forced, in order to sustain life,
to eat the flesh of wild horses, which we found in great quantities.
For about nine days we were compelled to eat horseflesh, when we
arrived at a river called the Brasos. Here we found elk and deer plenty,
some buffalo, and wild horses by thousands (Bean 1856:405406).
1803: North Texas
Dr. John Sibley, was the official Indian Agent of Orleans Territory, a Senator
in the Louisiana State Senate, a colonel of militia, and later a cattle farmer and
cotton planter. He made an exploratory trip along the Red River in 1803. In
March 1804, he began a correspondence with President Thomas Jefferson and
in 1805 he wrote a description of the Indians of Louisiana that was contained
in a report that Jefferson presented to the U.S. Senate (Ricky 1998:319; Connor
2010). He included the following comments about the Panis or Towiaches
(probably the Taovayas) who lived along the middle section of the Red River
as it forms the northern boundary of Texas. The Taovaya villages were located
on the south bank of the river, under or very near today’s Lake Texoma.
PANIS or TOWIACHES. The French call them Panis, and the Span-
iards Towiaches; the latter is the proper Indian name. They live on
the south bank of the Red river. . . .
They have many horses and mules. They raise more corn, pumpkins,
beans and tobacco, than they want for their own consumption; the
surplusage they exchange with Hietans [Comanches] for buffaloe,
rugs, horses and mules. . . . They have but few guns and very little
ammunition; what they have they keep for war, and hunt with a bow.
Their meat is principally buffaloe; seldom kill a deer, though they
are so plenty they come into their villages and about their houses,
like a domestic animal: elk, bear, wolves, antelope and wild hogs are
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 215
likewise plenty in their country, and white rabbits or hares, as well
as the common rabbit: white bears sometimes come down amongst
them, and wolves of all colours. The men generally go entirely naked,
and the women nearly so, only wearing a small flap of a piece of skin
(Sibley 1805b:4647).
We should note the similarity between the Brevel sighting and the Sibley
sighting, especially in the list of animals. Both reports were contained in letters
written by Dr. Sibley and both purport to list the animals along the Red River.
Brevel’s sighting, however, was from 1767 and Sibley’s from 1803. As the cor-
respondent for both was Dr. Sibley, perhaps some similarity in phrasing should
be expected. It should also be noted that Meriwether Lewis’ famous Travels of
Capts. Lewis and Clarke (sic), published in London in 1809, contained a descrip-
tion of the Panis or Towiaches, much of which was taken verbatim from Sibley’s
letter, including the account of elk and the other animals (Lewis 1809:196197).
1807: Province of Texas
Having recently completed the Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. government was
interested in learning more about the Spanish provinces to the southwest of
Louisiana. Lt. Zebulon Pike, an officer in the U.S. Army and a noted explorer
for whom Pike’s Peak was named, was instructed to undertake an exploration
of lands to the west and south of the U.S., which included the provinces of New
Spain. During the course of his travels, he spent June of 1807 in Texas (Pike
1811:329334). His description of the Province of Texas contains the following
description of the wildlife:
Animals.Buffalo, deer, elk, wild hogs, and wild horses; the latter
of which are in such numbers as to afford supplies for all the savages
who border on the province, the Spaniards, and vast droves for the
other provinces of the United States, which find their way out, not-
withstanding the trade being contraband (Pike 1811:331).
Mexican Period
1829: Interior Texas
Alarmed by the short-lived Fredonian Rebellion near Nacogdoches by some
American colonists in 18261827, Mexican President Guadalupe Victoria sent
216
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
a Comisión de Límites (Boundary Commission) to Texas to assess the situation.
Victoria designated 38-year-old General Manuel de Mier y Terán, probably one
of the most qualified men in Mexico, to command the expedition. Mier y Terán
had fought against the Spanish in Mexico’s War of Independence, had been a
member of Mexico’s first congress, and had served as minister of war. He de-
parted from Mexico City on November 10, 1827, and returned in 1829 (Jackson
2000:15; Henson 2010). He kept a diary of his travels:
SUNDAY, MARCH 1ST [1829]
Under way at 8:30, the 4 leagues’ journey to the site of Santa Rosa
[in Cameron County near Brownsville]. . . . We have seen many deer
in herds. Some of them are of the species verrendo [pronghorn], as
they call them here. The species Elán9 [elk] of the genus ciervo they
call Bura, and they are found in the interior of Tejas where the Co-
manches live10 (de Mier y Terán 1829:157158).
Republic of Texas
1836: Central Texas
Mary Austin Holley, a cousin of Stephen F. Austin, came to Texas in 1831 and
decided to write a book that would encourage immigration. She reported in
1836 that “the moose is also found, but is confined to the frontier or far west”
(Holley 1836:99). In the 1800s, the terms moose and elk were used interchange-
ably to denote what we call elk today. At the time of Holley’s writing, the
frontier of Texas was just west of San Antonio (Wallace and Hoebel 1986:12).
1840: South Texas
George Bonnell was a native New Yorker who came to Texas in 1836 to fight
in the Texas Revolution. He moved to Austin in 1839 and went into the printing
9. Salacroux and Rodrigo (1837:247) define the term elán as “El vapiti, elán ó ciervo del
Canadá (C. canadensis)” (italics in original). In other words, wapiti or elk (authors’
translation). De Mier y Terán notes that the word bura was used to describe elán (elk).
Today, in modern French, élan refers to red deer.
10. Comanches moved from the north into Central Texas in the early 1750s (Hämäläinen
2008:5556) and by the time of de Mier y Terán’s visit could be found from the Panhandle
through the Llano Estacado and the South Plains, and throughout the Hill Country to the
Balcones Escarpment in the south.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 217
business. He was selected to be the government printer for the Republic of Texas
and founded the Texas Sentinel. In 1841, he joined the Texan Santa Fe Expedi-
tion. He was captured by the Mexican army, imprisoned, and released in time
to join the Mier Expedition in 1842. He was captured again and, this time, he
was shot and killed (Kemp 2010). His book, Topographical Description of
Texas, was published in 1840. In it he writes:
A few miles south of the Los Olmos commences a sandy barren ridge,
known by the name of the Wild Horse Desert. . . . About two miles
south of this desert, and in the edge of one of the most beautiful and
fertile prairies in Texas is the celebrated salt lake [Sal del Rey, about
27 km (17 mi) north-northeast of Edinburg in Hidalgo County, about
thirty miles from the Rio Grande]. . . . This lake is surrounded by the
best stock raising country in the world, and the wild cattle, horses,
deer, and elk resort to it in thousands (Bonnell 1840:110111).11
1841: West Texas
In 1841 Arthur Ikin, a native of Great Britain who had been appointed consul
in London by the Republic of Texas, visited Texas to deliver treaties negotiated
between the Republic and Great Britain and between the Republic and the
Netherlands (Sims 2010). Later that year he published a book about Texas in
which he relates the following: “Among and beyond the mountains, moose, a
species of antelope, and wild sheep, are said to be common” (Ikin 1841:41).12
In the 1800s moose was the preferred term among Britons to denote elk.
1841: Central Texas
George Wilkins Kendall was a co-founder of the New Orleans newspaper, The
Picayune, and is generally regarded as the United States’ first war correspondent.
He was a pioneering promoter of the sheep industry in Texas, and Kendall
11. In 1841, William Kennedy, the Texas consul in London and later British consul in
Galveston, published a book containing very similar language. He speaks of “the
celebrated Salt Lake” and “the resort of horses and cattle, deer and elk.” Because
Kennedy’s book was published the year after Bonnell’s and contains such similar
language, we believe that both books should be counted as one report (Kennedy
1841:179180).
12. Biologist Del Weniger believed that the mountains referred to by Ikin are “the heights of
Hill Country” of Central Texas. It is not clear, however, that “wild sheep,” which we
presume are bighorn sheep, ever inhabited the Hill Country. All three animals are present
today in the Trans-Pecos, so we assign this sighting to West Texas (Weniger 1997:49).
218
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
County in the Hill Country was named for him. In 1841, he joined the Texan
Santa Fe Expedition, initiated by Republic of Texas President Mirabeau Lamar
to claim parts of northern New Mexico for the Republic and establish a new
trade route to Santa Fe. The people of New Mexico wanted nothing to do with
Texas, so upon their arrival in New Mexico, members of the expedition were
captured by the Mexican army and imprisoned in Mexico. Upon his release,
Kendall described his experiences in Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedi-
tion, which was published in 1844 and proved to be a best seller (Cutrer 2010).
The Texan Santa Fe Expedition left Austin on June 19, 1841, heading for
the Red River. On July 14, they made camp half a mile from the Brazos
River, probably in Bosque County, northwest of Waco:
The valley of the Brazos at this place abounded with every species
of timber known in Texas; grapes, plums, and other fruit were found
in profusion; trout and other fish were plentiful in the small creeks
in the neighborhood, and the woods and prairies about us not only
afforded excellent grazing for our cattle and horses, but teemed with
every species of gameelk, deer, bears, wild turkeys, and, at the
proper season, buffalo and mustang (Kendall 1844:102).
1842: South Texas
In December 1842, the Mier Expedition (5 captains and 308 soldiers) marched
south along the Rio Grande from Laredo. The main force camped in today’s
Starr County at a point on the east bank of the Rio Grande opposite Mier, two
miles from the river on the Mexican side. In the battle for Mier, the Texans were
defeated and many were captured. In February 1843, some of the prisoners
escaped and were recaptured, and Santa Anna ordered that 1 in 10 be shot. The
prisoners drew beans from a pot and those drawing black beans were executed.
The white bean survivors were imprisoned in San Carlos Fortress in Perote,
Veracruz, also known as Perote Prison. One of the surviving soldiers was William
Stapp, a nephew of Major General Milton Stapp of Indiana. As a result of the
efforts of his uncle, Stapp was released from prison in 1844. After his release,
Stapp wrote a journal of his experiences. He was apparently well educated, as
his book abounds in classical and literary references (Nance 2010).
Our whole force moved down the left bank of the Bravo [Rio Grande],
bearing to the east of the settlements on the river. . . . A bright
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 219
December morning and a truant humour allured some comrades and
myself to diverge from our line of march and try our skill in woodcraft.
Besides the droves of mustangs and wild cattle that still roam in
freedom over these desert plains, deer, elk, turkeys, and Mexican
hogs, are found in abundance wherever the hunter’s enterprise may
institute a search (Stapp 1845:27).
1845: Central Texas
In 1845 A. Suthron published his book, Prairiedom: Rambles and Scrambles
in Texas or New Estrémadura. In it, he described his travels in Texas and, in
particular, his visit to the Central Texas ranch of General Memucan Hunt.13 The
following excerpt from Suthron’s book describes an area that appears to be
located in today’s northwestern Milam County, some 3050 km (2030 mi)
northeast of Georgetown. The San Andrés Rivertoday known as the Little
River joins the San Gabriel River near Cameron, Texas, and flows into the
Brazos from the west.
In truth, the whole district of country lying between the Trinity and
Brassos, and the Brassos and Colorado, north of the San Antonio
Road, is one of rare fertility and enchanting beauty. . . . The district
embraced between the forks of San Andrés and San Gabriel is per-
fectly enchanting. Gen. Hunt, late minister to the United States, &c.,
has a domain here of some twenty thousand acres [8,000 hectares],
which he has selected for his country villa, and which well deserves
to be called El Paradiso. This is the favorite haunt of the deer, elk,
and buffalo. Extensive valleys of rich, arable, alluvial lands are found
throughout this range, particularly on the water-courses (Suthron
1845:104105, italics in original).
13. Hunt was an important Texas revolutionary who held the rank of major general in the
Texas army, was appointed secretary of the navy during the days of the Republic, then
commissioner to the United States. After annexation, he was a member of the first
Legislature and was later appointed a member of the U.S./Mexico Boundary Commission.
He is said to have owned several landed estates or ranches (Neu 2010).
220
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
Early Statehood
Ca. 1849: Texas
In 1849,14 Colonel Richard Dodge began his military career when he was posted
to Fort Lincoln in Medina County, west of San Antonio (Dodge 1877:406). He
was a well-known hunter who hunted throughout the western U.S. in what he
called “the plains.” In 1877, he wrote a book about his life of hunting:
The range of the elk seems originally to have been commensurate
with the territory of the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific,
from Michigan to (Florida, I was going to say, but having no evidence
of an elk ever having been seen in that State, I will substitute) Texas.
They are now found on the plains, in greater or less numbers, from
the British line on the north, to the Red River on the south, from the
Missouri on the east, far beyond the plains through the Rocky Moun-
tains to the Pacific coast (Dodge 1877:155).
1851: West Texas
Legendary naturalist John James Audubon first visited Texas in 1837 with his
son John Woodhouse Aububon, who was also a naturalist. His son returned to
Texas in 1845–1846 to gather specimens for his father’s pioneering book, The
Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Audubon and co-author John Bachman
wrote the following in 1851, the year of Audubon’s death.
It [the elk] is found on the western prairies, and ranges along the
eastern sides of the mountains in Texas and New Mexico. It is also
found in Oregon and California. Its most southern geographical range
still remains undetermined (Audubon and Bachman 1851:94).
1853: Texas
Captain L. Sitgreaves, a topographical engineer in the U.S. Army, wrote a report
of an expedition he made down the Zuñi and Colorado rivers, which was pub-
lished in 1853. In it, he cataloged the wildlife he encountered along the way. In
the quote below, he lists the different taxonomic classifications of elk that had
been used up to that time:
14. Dodge does not date his sighting of elk in Texas, but we believe it most likely was very
early in his military career, before the elk were extirpated.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 221
ELAPHUS CANADENSIS, Ray.15The American Elk.
Cervus Canadensis, Ray Syn. Quad., p. 84.
Cervus Strongyloceros, Schreber Saugt., vol. 2, p. 1074, pl. 247, fig. G.
Cervus Canadensis, Godman. Nat. Hist., vol. 2, 294.
Elaphus Canadensis, Aud. and Bach. Quad N.A., vol. 2, p. 84, pl. 62.
I have only observed this animal in the Indian Territory, but it extends
its range into Texas, New Mexico, and California (Sitgreaves 1853:56).
1868: North Texas
The Texas Almanac of 1868 reported:
In the north-west and at present unsettled portions of our State are
still to be found, in the fall and winter, large numbers of the grandest
and stateliest of all the four-footed game of this continentthe buffalo.
Last winter they were abundant a short distance west of Fort Belknap,
in Young County, and a party of hunters who went out in their pursuit
brought into and sold in the market large quantities of both tongues
and skins. Indigenous to the same region is to be found the black-tailed
deer and elk, although neither are now abundant . . . . (Durham 1868:92).
Ca. 1880: West Texas
As we saw earlier, Vernon Bailey noted in 1905 that “there are no wild elk in
the State of Texas, but years ago, as several old ranchmen have told me, they
ranged south to the southern part of the Guadalupe Mountains, across the Texas
line” (Bailey 1905:60).
Physical Evidence
Physical evidence in the form of bones, antlers, and paleofeces (preserved
ancient feces) suggests the presence of native elk in Texas. Such evidence has
been found in North Texas, East Texas, and West Texas. The evidence we present
is a comprehensive listing of reports published in the literature or available
online (Table 2). The most complete database of archaeological and paleonto-
logical finds in Texas is the online Texas Archeological Sites Atlas, which
compiles the reports of all archaeological projects in the state, over 70,000 items
to date. It is maintained by the Texas Historical Commission in coordination
15. What Sitgreaves refers to as Elaphus canadensis would today be classified as Cervus
canadensis.
Table 1
Sightings or Reports of Elk in Texas Between 1601 and 1905
Region
Year of or
Report
Year of
Publication
Source/
Authors
Fauna
Texas
Panhandle
1601
1908
Oñate
Canadian River
Elk, bison
North Texas
1759
2007
Oyarzún
Jack County
Elk, bison, bears, rabbits, hares
1767
1807
Brevel to Sibley
Red River
Elk, deer, bison, wild horses, bears,
wolves, sangliers or wild hogs,
antelope, foxes, white hares, rabbits
1788
1967
Vial
Taovaya Villages
Elk, deer, bison, bears, wild boars
1803
1807
Sibley
Red River
Elk, bison, deer, bear, wolves,
antelope, wild hogs, white bears,
white rabbits or hares
1868
1868
Durham
Young County
Elk, bison, deer
Central Texas
1801
1856
Bean
Hill/McClennan county
Elk, deer, bison, wild horses
1836
1836
Holley
Frontier,1 Far West TX
Moose
2
1841
1844
Kendall
Bosque County
Elk, deer, bears, wild turkeys, bison,
mustangs
pre-1845
1845
Suthron
Milam County
Elk, deer, bison
East Texas
1772
1914
de Mézières
Nacogdoches/Shelby
county
Red deer,3 deer, bison, wild goats,
wild hogs, turkeys, hares, rabbits,
partridges
222 Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
South Texas
1840
1840
Bonnell
Hidalgo County
Elk, deer, horses, wild cattle
1842
1845
Stapp
Starr County
Elk, deer, mustangs, wild cattle,
turkeys, Mexican hogs
West Texas
1841
1841
Ikin
In and beyond
mountains
Moose,2 antelope, wild sheep
1851
1851
Audubon
Mountains of TX &
NM
Elk
1880 4
1905
Old Ranchmen
to Bailey
Guadalupe Mountains
Elk
Texas
1807
1811
Pike
Province of Texas
Elk, deer, bison, wild horses, wild
hogs
1829
2000
Mier y Terán
Interior of Tejas
Elk, deer, pronghorn
ca. 18493
1877
Dodge
State of Texas
Elk
pre-1853
1853
Sitgreaves
State of Texas
Elk
1 In 1836 the frontier of Texas was located just west of San Antonio.
2 Moose was a word commonly used for elk in the early nineteenth century.
3 Red deer is a term sometimes used for elk in the past because of their similar appearance. There are no native red deer in
North America.
4 The date 1880 for this sighting is the midpoint of the range 1870 to 1890, which is our estimate based on Bailey’s 1905
report of sightings “years ago.”
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 223
224
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
with the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at The University of Texas
at Austin (http://nueces.thc.state.tx.us/). FAUNMAP is an online archival in-
teractive database documenting the Quaternary distribution of mammal species
in the U.S. and is frequently used by archaeologists and wildlife biologists.
However, it is incomplete with regard to Texas elk finds, listing only one example
of the physical evidence of elk thus far found in the state (http://www.ucmp.
berkeley.edu/faunmap/).
Elk Bones
Although the bones found are single bones and not complete skeletons, they
provide additional suggestive evidence of native elk. It should be noted that
several reports in the Texas Archeological Sites Atlas describe bones found in
archaeological excavations in Texas as “large mammal bones” or as “larger than
deer. One bone is described as “deer-bison.” A number of these bones may be
elk, but since elk have been considered nonnative to Texas, archaeologists have
been reluctant to assign such large bones to elk. Although the bones were found
in Texas, it is possible, of course, that individual elk bones and antlers may have
been transported from elsewhere by Native Americans.
West Texas
In 1935, during excavations in Williams Cave at the Adolphus Williams Ranch,
now within Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Culberson County, Mary
Youngman Ayer reported finding a bone fragment and a tooth fragment which
she identified as belonging to elk. It should be noted that other elk remains
have been found in the Guadalupe Mountains just across the state line in New
Mexico (Roney 1985:36). Elk would certainly have ranged throughout the
Guadalupes without regard to today’s state borders. In her article, Ayer re-
ported the following:
19. Cervus merriami Nelson, referred. Arizona Wapiti.
Fragment of a molar (A.N.S. 14204). Proximal end of ulna (A.N.S.
14218)
Remarks: The molar is too small a fragment to identify with any
certainty but it indicates a very large tooth typical of the Elk. The
ulna is very large and broad, the articulation facets for the humerus
and radius are typical of the Elk. It is entirely too large for any Mule
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 225
Deer and undoubtedly represents an immature Elk or Wapiti. . . .
(Ayer 1936:612).
In 1932, Frank M. Setzler of the Smithsonian Institution excavated Sunny
Glen Canyon Cave No. 1,16 located about four miles northwest of Alpine in the
Big Bend. Setzler reported finding two unworked bones, stating, “One of these
bones is an antelope (Antilocapra americana), and the other is an elk (Cervus
canadensis) vertebra.” The elk vertebra was found at a depth of 0.9 m (3 ft),
below all but 1 of the 42 human artifacts (a dart point) recovered during the
excavation, which were at depths of 15 centimeters (6 in) to 0.76 m (2.5 ft). The
depth of the bone at 0.9 m (3 ft) suggests that the elk died either before humans
began using the cave or very early in the period of human occupation. It has not
been dated (Setzler 1935:105; Setzler quoted in Prewitt 1970:36, Table 4).
East Texas
In a 1983 report of the Columbus Bend Project in Colorado County, East Texas,
Jeff Homburg reported finding lithic flakes, tested cobbles, split cobbles, bifaces,
biface fragments, dart and arrow points, groundstone, hammerstone, fire-cracked
rock, mussel shell, deer bone, and a probable elk bone (Homburg 1983). At the
recommendation of local informants who suggested a nearby site might be of
some significance, Jeff Keller and his colleagues excavated and encountered
large amounts of primary stages of lithic debitage, fire-cracked rocks, one elk
tooth, scattered gastropods, freshwater mussels, groundstone implements, and
numerous projectile points in local collections (Keller et al. 1983).
North Texas
On April 17, 1993, Russell Pfau (1994) found the distal end of an elk tibia (Mid-
western State Collection of Fossil Vertebrates MWSU 12946). It was embedded
in the bank of a small tributary of Pony Creek, which lies north-northeast of
Seymour in Baylor County, about 55 km (35 mi) south of the Red River.17 The
bone yielded a radiocarbon date of 295±50 B.P. (Beta Analytic, Inc., #62592). The
calibrated date range is cal A.D. 14611668 and cal A.D. 17821797 (calibrated
with OxCal 4.2.4, IntCal13 curve) (Ramsey 2001, 2016; Reimer et al. 2013).
16. Sunny Glen Canyon Cave is also known as Rock Pillar Cave, Indian Cave, Comanche
Cave, and Indian Cave on Comanche Mountain.
17. Pfau reported it as the first find of an elk bone in Texas, unaware of earlier finds (Pfau
1994:1; R. Pfau, Tarleton State University, e-mail to Richardson Gill July 2, 2011).
226
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
In a 1994 unpublished archaeological report, Brian Shaffer reported recov-
ering a proximal phalange18 of an elk from a garbage midden at the Spider Knoll
site (41DT11), a Caddo archaeological site in Delta County. Shaffer found the
bone 40 km (25 mi) south-southwest of Paris, Texas, and about 55 km (35 mi)
south of the Red River. Based on six calibrated (1-sigma) radiocarbon samples
of other artifacts, the midden ranges in age from A.D. 9701430 (Shaffer et al.
1995:159).
Elk Antlers
East Texas
In 1931, A.T. Jackson excavated a billeta hammer tool used in the manufac-
ture of stone toolsfrom a midden at the Mrs. Emma Owens site in Anderson
County, East Texas.19 The artifact was originally thought to be a deer antler, but
after consulting with Dr. Ernest Lundelius, a highly respected vertebrate pale-
ontologist at The University of Texas at Austin, it was reassessed as having
been made from an elk antler (Jodry 1982). It should be pointed out, however,
that as elk antler tools were easily transportable as items of long-distance trade,
we do not know if the billet was made from the antler of a native Texas elk or
an elk from some other region. Other artifacts at the site have been dated to the
historic Allen phase of Caddo culture, dating from A.D. 16501800.
North Texas
In the March 28, 1853, issue of the Clarksville Standard, Charles DeMorsethe
newspaper’s longtime owner and editorreported finding a large pair of antlers
near Fort Worth. “At Worth, we found in the line of curiosities a wild cat, a pet
bear, some stone coal from Belknap, and an immense pair of Deer’s antlers
picked up on the Grand Prairie [Dallas County], probably four feet in length
[1.2 m]” (Weniger 1997:49; Wallace 2010). We know from de Oyarzún’s account
(1759:119) that he found large buro (elk) antlers in the countryside” northwest
of Fort Worthone that was “nearly two varas [1.7 m, 5.5 ft] long.” When elk
antlers are found lying on the ground, it suggests that the antlers were shed by
elk living in the vicinity.
18. Phalange is another term for phalanx.
19. Details for 41AN21 can be found in the Texas Archeological Sites Atlas accessible from
http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 227
Elk Paleofeces
Elk paleofeces are the most direct evidence of a resident elk, except for a full
skeleton. They are unlikely to have been transported from another location by
humans or animals. They were most likely deposited where found. Elk feces
are distinctive and can be distinguished from deer pellets (Elbroch 2003:232235).
In the High Sloth Caves in Guadalupe Mountains National Park of the
Trans-Pecos region of Texas, Thomas Van Devender and his colleagues (1977:107
108) unearthed a number of paleofeces, particularly sloth dung.20 He wrote, “The
sloth dung in Cave C-08 is associated with fecal pellets of a large artiodactyl
(possibly Cervus merriami, Merriam’s elk) which have been dated to 11,760±610
B.P. (Laboratory of Isotope Geochemistry at the University of Arizona, A-1522).”
21 The calibrated date range is cal 13,83110,615 B.C., at the end of the Pleisto-
cene (calibrated at a 95.4 percent confidence level with OxCal 4.2.4, IntCal13
curve) (Ramsey 2001, 2016; Reimer et al. 2013).
Rock Art Evidence
Native Americans left prehistoric artistic evidence of the presence of elk in
Texas through their rock art, consisting of painted pictographs and a carved
petroglyph of animals with elk-like antlers (Table 2). The evidence presented
in this paper is the result of a comprehensive online search of photos of rock
art in Texas and an evaluation of the substantial collection of rock art photos at
the Center for Big Bend Studies of Sul Ross State University.
Pictographs
When studying pictographs of animals with antlers, it is sometimes difficult to
determine whether the images are of mule deer, white-tailed deer, or elk. In the
past, some archaeologists (e.g., Smith 1916) used the size of the body of the
animal depicted to determine whether the figure represented deer or elk. We
propose that a more definitive method of distinguishing between the species
should be based on the antlers, which are more distinctive than body size.
Mule Deer
Mule deer antlers grow forward from their base (i.e., toward the front of the
animal) and have a distinctive dichotomous branching pattern in which the tines
20. Sloths are now extinct in Texas.
21. The laboratory number for this sample is listed as 1522 in the text in Van Devender et al.
1977, page 107, but as 1533 in Table 1 on page 108.
228
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
Figure 2a. Mule deer (Odocoileus hemio-
nus). Note the dichotomous branching of
the antlers in which the tines fork and the
forks fork. Photo courtesy of Rocky Moun-
tain National Park.
Figure 2b. Postulated mule deer pictograph
from the Sierra Vieja, Presidio County. Note
the dichotomous branching of the antlers
and the tines that fork. Photo courtesy of the
Center for Big Bend Studies.
of the antlers fork and the forks fork (Fig. 2a). There are pictographs that dem-
onstrate the same branching pattern in the antlers. An example is shown in
Figure 2b, from Presidio County in the Trans-Pecos region, which we identify
as mule deer.
In their approach to the identification of mule deer and elk in rock art, ar-
chaeologists at the Center for Big Bend Studies advocate using head and neck
morphologies together with the antler branching pattern. They base this approach
on the assumption that some prehistoric artists may have focused on depicting
the antlers correctly while others may have focused on body morphologies. The
Center for Big Bend Studies has concluded that Figure 2b represents an elk
based on all three criteriaantlers, head, and neckbut most importantly, the
head and neck morphologies (Andy Cloud, e-mail to Richardson Gill October
20, 2016). However, we believe that the head and neck morphologies of the
pictograph in Figure 2b are consistent with those of mule deer (Fig. 2a); and
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 229
we give more importance to the deliberately portrayed dichotomous branching
pattern of the antlers in identifying the pictograph as a mule deer.
White-Tailed Deer
White-tailed deer can often be distinguished in the rock art as well. White-tailed
antlers grow forward of their base (i.e., toward the front of the animal) and
curve inward as they grow up (Fig. 3a). The tines rise vertically from the main
beam. White-tailed deer raise their tails when they run; in contrast, elk do not.
The antlers in the pictograph from Terrell County in the Trans-Pecos region
(Fig. 3b), have points that rise vertically from the main beam without dichoto-
mous branching; the horns curve inward, and are not carried down the back.
The curved, standing tail is also characteristic of white-tailed deer.
Elk
The branching pattern in elk antlers, on the other hand, is distinctly different
from that in mule deer and white-tailed deer (Fig. 4a). They generally have
Figure 3a. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus
virginianus). Note the simple branching of
the antlers, which grow forward of their
base and curve inward as they grow up.
Photo adapted from and courtesy of In-
formed Farmers.
Figure 3b. Postulated white-tailed deer
pictograph from Terrell County, which
shows simple branching with inward-
curving antlers growing above the head.
Note the raised tail, which is character-
istic of running white-tails. Photo by
Reeda Peel.
230
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
Figure 4a. Male elk (Cervus canadensis).
The antlers grow to the rear of the base and
the tines are nearly perpendicular to the
main beams, which curve inward. Note the
pronounced brow tines. Photo adapted from
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/
commons/9/9d/Rocky-mountain-elk.jpg.
Figure 4b. Postulated elk pictograph, the
famous Red Elk, Red Monochrome style
from the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, Val
Verde County. The tines are nearly per-
pendicular to the main beams and do not
fork. Note the brow tines. Photo adapted
from Jim Zintgraff, courtesy of the Witte
Museum, San Antonio, Texas.
pronounced brow tines and a long main beam that grows above the head and
behind the base (i.e., toward the back of the animal) with a slight inward curve.
The tines rise more or less perpendicularly from the main beam and they nor-
mally do not fork. Occasionally, a forked tine can be found, but it is not a true
dichotomous branching pattern.
The famous Red Elk pictograph (Fig. 4b) is from the Lower Pecos Can-
yonlands on the eastern edge of the Trans-Pecos region in Val Verde County. It
is in the Red Monochrome style, which dates from A.D. 10001600.22 In the
pictograph, each antler has a long main beam with a slight inward curve from
which the tines rise more or less perpendicularly. Brow tines are also visible.
It is interesting to note that some archaeologists have interpreted the rising,
curving line visible near the rear end (i.e., right side) of the Red Elk to be a tail.
Because raised tails are a characteristic of white-tailed deerbut not of elk
those archaeologists have identified this pictograph as a deer. A close examina-
tion, however, shows that the supposed “tail” does not connect to the body. If
the arc of the body were continued up, it would pass to the left of the curved
line. The line, therefore, is neither attached to nor a part of the body. The Red
Elk was painted over older rock art, and the curved line appears to be related
to the older lines to the right of the bodynot to the body of the elk.
22. The dates for pictographs are estimated by the Rock Art Foundation. For details, visit the
Rock Art Foundation at http://www.rockart.org/explore/style.cfm?view=red-monochrome.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 231
In a 3,0004,500-year-old
(25001000 B.C.) Pecos River style
pictograph from the Lower Pecos
Canyon (Fig. 5), 23 we see the same
patterna long beam rising above
the base with straight, rising tines.
Elk characteristically have brow
tines, which also appear to be
present. The body does not have a
raised tail, another characteristic
of elk.
Petroglyph
In 1994, State Photographer of
Texas Wyman Meinzer photo-
graphed a petroglyph of an elk from
Dickens County in the South Plains
east of Lubbock (Meinzer, e-mail
Figure 5. Postulated elk pictograph, 3,000
4,500-year-old (25001000 B.C.) Pecos River
style from the Lower Pecos Canyon, Val Verde
County. The antlers are shown growing to the
rear of the base; the tines are nearly perpen-
dicular to the long main beams and do not
fork. Note the pronounced brow tines. Photo
by Reeda Peel.
to R. Gill and personal communication October 2016) (Fig. 6). The antlers
depicted grow toward the back of the animal, which is characteristic of elk. The
petroglyph, however, has not been dated to establish its age and, therefore, could
have been carved more recently.
Are Elk a Native Texas Species?
The historical and archaeological evidence presented herein leads us to conclude
with confidence that native populations of elk were present throughout Texas
prior to 1900. The question we are left with is whether these native elk were
the same species or subspecies as the free-ranging elk in Texas today. This is
an important distinction because if they were the same, then today’s Texas elk
are not an exotic speciesrather, they are a native species.
In 1902, Edward W. Nelson proposed what he called a “new species of elk”
from Arizona that he named Merriam’s elk, Cervus merriami. Vernon Bailey
then proposed in 1905 that the native elk of Texas were Merriam’s elk. Other
researchers later suggested that they were not a different species, but might be
a subspecies.
23. For details, visit the Rock Art Foundation at http://www.rockart.org/explore/style.
cfm?view=pecos-river.
232
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
Figure 6. Postulated elk petroglyph from a ranch in Dickens County. Photo courtesy
of Wyman Meinzer.
Today, however, leading cervid taxonomists discount the existence of a
separate species or subspecies of elk known as Merriam’s elk. They believe that
the elk in and east of the Rocky Mountains were not only the same species, but
the same subspecies. In other words, there never was a Merriam’s elk. DNA
research indicates that today’s free-ranging elk in the Davis and Glass mountains
are genetically indistinguishable from the elk in the Lincoln National Forest of
New Mexico. They are the descendants of elk that naturally migrated through
the Sacramento, Guadalupe, Delaware, and Davis mountains to recolonize areas
of their former native range in the Trans-Pecos (Dunn 2016).
The free-ranging elk that reside in the Davis and Glass mountains today are
the same species and subspecies as the elk that were present before their extirpa-
tion in the nineteenth centuryCervus canadensis canadensis. See the appendix
Table 2
Physical Evidence of the Presence of Native Elk in Texas
Region
Age of Artifact
Publication
Person
Approximate Location
Artifact
North Texas
cal A.D. 9701430
1995
Shaffer
Delta County
Elk proximal phalange
cal A.D. 14611668
cal A.D. 17821797
1994
Pfau
Baylor County
Elk tibia
1759
2007
Oyarzún
Jack County
Elk antlers
1853
1853
DeMorse
Dallas County
Elk antlers
Central Texas
1654
1882
Guadalajara
McCulloch County
Hides of elk, deer1 and bison
South Plains
1994 2
Meinzer
Dickens County
Elk petroglyph
East Texas
A.D. 165018003
1982
Jodry
Anderson County
Elk antler billet
not dated
1983
Homburg
Colorado County
Probable elk bone
not dated
1983
Keller
Colorado County
Elk tooth
Lower Pecos
Canyon
A.D. 100016004
Rock Art
Foundation
Val Verde County
Red Elk pictograph
25001000 B.C.4
Rock Art
Foundation
Val Verde County
Elk pictograph
West Texas
13,83110,615 cal
B.C.
1977
Van Devender
Guadalupe Mountains
Elk paleofeces
not dated
1936
Ayer
Guadalupe Mountains
Fragment of elk ulna
and molar
not dated
1970
Setzler
Brewster County
Elk vertebra
1 The Spanish word used in the original document is gamuza, which is normally translated as antelope or suede. In Central
Texas, however, we believe gamuza more likely refers to deerskin.
2 The date the photograph was taken.
3 Dated by associated artifacts to historic Allen phase.
4 The rock art dates are estimated by the Rock Art Foundation.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 233
234
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
for a more complete discussion of taxonomic, morphologic, and DNA studies
that support this claim.
Summary and Conclusions
Between 1600 and 1905 we find multiple written accounts of elk in Texas, both
firsthand eyewitness accounts and secondhand reports. Beginning with Gover-
nor Juan de Oñate’s sighting in the Panhandle in 1601, there are reports of elk
along the Red River in North Texas, sightings of elk along and near the Brazos
River in Central Texas, near Nacogdoches in East Texas, near the Rio Grande
in South Texas, and in the mountains of West Texas. The geographic distribution
of the reports is widespread across the state (see Table 1). After ca. 1880 there
are no additional eyewitness sightings or reports that we have found.
As for physical evidence, elk bones have been found south of the Red River
in North Texas, in the Guadalupe Mountains, and in the Big Bend region of
West Texas. A probable elk bone and elk tooth were found near Columbus in
East Texas; an elk hammer tool, or billet, was also found in East Texas; an elk
tooth fragment was found in the Guadalupe Mountains; an elk vertebra was
found just outside Alpine in Brewster County in the Big Bend; elk antlers were
found lying on the ground in North Texas; and probable elk paleofeces were
found in a cave in West Texas.
Among the reports in the Texas Archeological Sites Atlas are mentions of
unidentified, large mammal bones, described as “large mammals,” as “larger
than deer,” or as “deer-bison.” These bones could be reexamined in light of the
historical evidence presented in this paper to see if they are possibly elk bones,
since elk have been thought to be nonnative.
Other physical evidence can be found in prehistoric pictographs and a
petroglyph. The interpretation of rock art, however, is subjective. It is possible,
although we believe unlikely, that the rock art we have identified as elk could
have been intended to be images of deer. It is also possible that, although the
pictographs of elk are located in Texas, the artists saw elk in other states then
traveled to the Trans-Pecos and painted the images. Other archaeologists have
used the size of the body or the head and neck morphologies as the principal
criteria in determining whether a pictograph represents a deer or an elk. We
propose, however, that the shape of the antlers is a more accurate indicator,
even when the size of the body or other morphological characteristics as prin-
cipal criteria may be incongruous. Using our approach, we conclude that the
antlers shown in the pictographs in Figures 4b and 5 and the petroglyph in
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 235
Figure 7 above are elk antlers and the images represent elk. Although the rock
art is not in and of itself conclusive evidence of prehistoric elk, we believe it is
an important part of the overall body of evidence and, if accepted, establishes
the prehistoric antiquity of native elk sightings in Texas.
The final issues to be resolved are whether or not the elk ranging free in
Texas today are an exotic, nonnative species or subspecies and whether or not
they are genetically indistinguishable from the elk that inhabited the state before
1900. There has been no study of purported Merriam’s elk morphology that
establishes that there ever was a separate species or subspecies that could be
called Merriam’s elk. There have not been any DNA studies that demonstrate
sufficient genetic differences between purported Merriam’s elk and the other
elk to which they were compared to be evidence of subspeciation. A number of
leading authorities in cervid taxonomy have expressed their disagreement with
the purported existence of Merriam’s elk. A DNA study of the resident elk in
the Davis and Glass mountains today has determined they are genetically in-
distinguishable from the native elk of the Lincoln National Forest of New
Mexico, just north of the Texas border. Although there have been releases of
imported elk made by ranchers and by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in
the past, the genetic makeup of the free-ranging elk in the Davis and Glass
mountains of the Trans-Pecos today is the result of the natural migrations of
elk from New Mexico through the Sacramento, Guadalupe, Delaware, and Davis
mountains. (See the appendix for a more complete discussion of elk morphol-
ogy, DNA, and taxonomy.)
Sport hunting, market hunting, and agricultural encroachment of their prairie
habitat took a toll on elk in the state (Whitehead 1972:40; Nowak 1999:1113).
By 1905, if not decades before, there were no native elk left anywhere in Texas
(Bailey 1905:60). The body of evidence presented in this paper, consisting of
eyewitness accounts; historical reports; the physical evidence of bones, antlers,
and paleofeces; and prehistoric rock art clearly demonstrates that elk were native
to Texas before being extirpated in the nineteenth century. The genetic evidence
indicates they were the same speciesand even the same subspeciesas those
present today, Cervus canadensis canadensis.
Acknowledgments
Mr. Andy Cloud did extensive editing and proofreading of the paper and made
important suggestions for improvement. We would like to acknowledge and
thank Dr. Russell Pfau, Dr. Valerius Geist, Dr. Colin Groves, Dr. David Ribble,
236
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
and Dr. Dale Toweill for reviewing the manuscript and providing extensive
comments, suggestions, articles, and additional information to us. Dr. Lee
Lyman reviewed the article, made numerous helpful suggestions, and spent
hours on the phone discussing improvements. Dr. Richard E.W. Adams read
the manuscript and made useful comments. We learned much from Dr. Alfred
Gardner with respect to elk bones and from Dr. Solveig Turpin about Texas
rock art. We are also grateful for the suggestions of Dr. Montague Whiting.
Mr. John Sherman found an eyewitness sighting of elk for us. Drs. Don Wilson,
Frederick Stangl, Clark Wernecke, John Seebach, Paul Carlson, Warren Ballard,
Ernest Lundelius, James Heffelfinger, and Elizabeth Cary Mungall provided
us with articles, data, and bibliographic references. Mr. Wyman Meinzer kindly
provided us with a photograph he took of a petroglyph. We appreciate our
discussions with Drs. Brian Shaffer, Timothy Perttula, Lee Bement, Eric Hell-
gren, William Keel, and Messrs. Mark Walters, Dale Repnow, and Tom Toman.
We appreciate the help of Ashley Adair and the staff of the Austin History
Center; Sue Varvil at the British Deer Society; Peggy Scott at the San Diego
Zoo; and the staffs of the Trinity University, The University of Texas at San
Antonio, and the San Antonio Public Library. Susan Chisholm and Kay Plavi-
dal have provided essential support in copy editing, proofreading, fact-check-
ing, and making numerous constructive suggestions for improvement. Finally,
we greatly appreciate the time taken and the careful comments made by the
anonymous reviewers. The paper is substantially improved because of the
assistance of each of these individuals.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 237
Appendix
We have presented historical accounts and physical evidence indicating that
native populations of elk were present throughout much of Texas prior to 1900.
The next question, then, is whether these native elk were the same species or
subspecies as the free-ranging elk present in Texas today. In this appendix, we
discuss taxonomic, morphological, and DNA studies that lead us to conclude
with confidence that today’s free-ranging elk are not only the same species, but
the same subspecies, as the native elk that were extirpated in the 1800s.
Taxonomy
The determination of a subspecies rests in part on genetic differences coupled
with geographic isolation. Whether or not there was ever a Merriam’s elk in
Texas depends on the resolution of two questions:
1. Did Merriam’s elk ever exist as a separate species or subspecies or was
it an ecotype whose purported larger body and antler size were environ-
mentally determined?
2. Was the population of elk in West Texas genetically isolated from the
vast gene pool of elk in and east of the Rocky Mountains?
Up through the nineteenth century, early taxonomists classified elk under
many different names. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, North
American elk were generally classified as Cervus canadensis (Lydekker 1901:51;
Anthony 1917:2). Worldwide, the number of species of elk and red deer prolif-
erated. Bryant and Maser (1985:6), listed 15 species of Cervus in Europe, Asia,
and North America. In a 1934 paper, however, Edgar Barclay studied what he
called maral deer from the Caucasus and found close similarities between them
and North American elk. He also believed that some maral deer characteristics
were similar to European red deer. Barclay concluded that his maral deer was
an intergradation between red deer and elk, so he proposed that most European,
Asiatic, and North American red deer and elk were conspecific; in other words,
they belonged to the same species Cervus elaphus (Barclay 1934). Barclay’s
hypothesis was slow to be adopted. The first apparent acceptance by taxonomists
was by J.R. Ellerman and T.C.R. Morrison-Scott in 1951 (p. 367), followed by
K.K. Flerov in 1952 (pp. 175178).24 In 1959, however, Raymond Hall and Keith
24.
For examples of authorities that accepted the unification and classified North American elk
as C. elaphus, see Ellerman and Morrison-Scott 1951:367; Flerov 1952:175178; Heptner
et al. 1961:190; Findley et al. 1975:327; Mayer et al. 1982:320; Corbet and Hill 1986:128;
238
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
Kelson (1959:1000), writing in The Mammals of North America, specifically
rejected the intergradation hypothesis. “In the absence of intergradation between
C. elaphus and C. canadensis, we treat the two as distinct.”25 Over time, the
unification was accepted by other, but not all, taxonomists without much discus-
sion. Although some researchers did not agree with the unification of red deer
and elk, the notion became entrenched and accepted as true by many taxonomists
and wildlife biologists. Today, however, the unification of elk and red deer is no
longer accepted. The leading cervid taxonomists today classify North American
and eastern Siberian elk as Cervus canadensis (Geist 2007:27; Groves and Grubb
2011:99; Mattioli 2011:423; Geist, e-mail to Richardson Gill July 26, 2011).
North American elk have been divided in the past into six subspecies, of
which two have supposedly become extinct and four supposedly survive. The
supposedly extinct North American subspecies are Merriam’s elk (C.
canadensis merriami) and Eastern elk (C. c. canadensis). The four suppos-
edly surviving subspecies are Roosevelt elk (C. c. roosevelti), Tule elk (C.
c. nannodes), Manitoban elk (C. c. manitobensis), and Rocky Mountain elk
(C. c. nelsoni).26 We have made a comprehensive literature search of recent
DNA analyses of elk to determine whether DNA studies have supported the
traditional subspecies designations in North America. Recent studies have
concluded there are either one,27 two,28 or three29 subspecies present in North
America today. Those studies that propose two subspecies in North America
identified Tule elk in California as a separate subspecies. Those that propose
Hoffmeister 1986:534; Grubb 1993:387, 2005:662; Geist 1998:170185; Nowak
1999:1110, 1113; and Kays and Wilson 2009:94.
25.
For examples of authorities that did not accept the unification and classified North
American elk as C. canadensis, see Murie 1951:54; Miller and Kellogg 1955:795; Hall
and Kelson 1959:1000; Cockrum 1960:250; Sanderson 1967:251; Walker et al.
1968:1389; Whitehead 1972:3844; Gunderson 1976:256, 341; Clutton-Brock et al.
1982:307; McDonald 1984:528; Putman 1988:13; Trense 1989:108109, 150, 343; Frey
2004:10, 25; Geist 2007:27; Groves and Grubb 2011:99; and Mattioli 2011:351.
26.
See, for example, Hall and Kelson 1959:10001003; Hall 1981:10841087; Bryant and
Maser 1985:24; Dolan 1988:13–34; and O’Gara 2002:4548.
27.
For examples of authorities proposing one single subspecies in North America, see Cronin
1992:70, 80; Denome 1998:1, 10; Geist 1998:183, 214; 2007:27; Ludt et al. 2004:1073;
and Mattioli 2011:423. Additionally, Polziehn et al. 2000:1561 suggest that elk were once
one continuous distribution in the past before the arrival of settlers.
28.
For examples of authorities proposing two subspecies, see Groves and Grubb 1987:4950;
O’Gara 2002:58–60, 62; and Williams et al. 2004:1, 117.
29.
For examples of authorities proposing three subspecies, see Polziehn et al. 1998:1005,
1009; Polziehn 2000:99, 105; Polziehn et al. 2000:1562; Meredith et al. 2007:807; and
Broughton et al. 2013:497.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 239
three subspecies in North America identified Tule elk in California and
Roosevelt or Olympic elk in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia as
separate subspecies. The one consistent theme among all the studies cited
is that there is no evidence to support a genetic differentiation between the
montane Rocky Mountain elk and the plains Manitoban elk. There would,
therefore, be little likelihood that the supposedly extinct Eastern elk would
have been a separate subspecies either, as there was no natural barrier to
separate the Eastern elk population from the plains population. According
to population biologist Renee Polziehn and her colleagues, “A panmictic or
clinal distribution was suggested for eastern, Manitoban, and Rocky Moun-
tain wapiti” (Polziehn et al. 1998:1005). In other words, the vast elk popu-
lation that lived in the Rocky Mountains and areas to the east comprised
one subspecies.
Other researchers have identified only one species and subspecies of elk in
all of North America. For example, noted wildlife biologist and taxonomist
Valerius Geist, author of the encyclopedic work, Deer of the World: Their
Evolution, Behaviour, and Ecology, concluded, “The one gene difference between
Olympic [Roosevelt] elk and Rocky Mountain elk is taxonomically trivial.
That’s why there is only one subspecies of elk in North America and the re-
gional difference, primarily in body size and environmentally affected growth
pattern of antlers, are ecotypic(Geist 2007:27, emphasis in the original). In
other words, the differences are the result of their environment and not their
genes. Geist further elaborated, “I regard all North American elk to be the same
subspecies, C. canadensis canadensis Erxleben 1777, while recognizing that
there are distinct regional ecotypes (Rocky Mountain, Tule, Olympic, etc.) as
well as genetically recognizable populations” (Geist, e-mail to Richardson Gill,
July 26, 2011; 1998:183, 214). Another example comes from the encyclopedic,
nine-volume Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Volume 2, Hoofed Mammals
where cervid taxonomist Stefano Mattioli (2011:423) has classified only one
subspecies of elk in all of North America, C. canadensis canadensis.
Merriam’s Elk
Formal classifications of deer have been inadequate, yet through
repetition have become regarded as unquestionable primary sources
of knowledge (Groves and Grubb 1987:22).
240
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
Colin Groves’ and Peter Grubb’s observation is particularly apt with regard
to the taxonomy and history of elk in Texas. The flawed identification of a new
species of elk was never reexamined and reanalyzed and a basic misunderstand-
ing of a historical statement was never questioned. As a result, through repeti-
tion for over 100 years, they became, as Groves and Grubb put it, “unquestion-
able primary sources of knowledge.” We will now reexamine both.
The classification of a now extinct species or subspecies of elk, known as
Merriam’s elk and alternately classified as C. merriami, C. elaphus merriami,
and C. canadensis merriami, which inhabited Arizona, New Mexico, and the
Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, has been widely accepted since the early twen-
tieth century.30 But was there ever sufficient, scientific evidence presented to
substantiate Merriam’s elk as a separate species or subspecies?
Morphology
In 1902 when Edward W. Nelson described his “new species of elk,” which he
called Cervus merriami or Merriam’s elk, he based his conclusion on the ex-
amination of the skull of one very old bull held by the American Museum of
Natural History, number 16211, which he compared to three other skulls, as can
be seen in Table 3. He compared the antlers belonging to skull number 16211
to three sets of antlers from other specimens. In addition, he examined a skin
from the same elk at the museum for color and read his own previous notes
concerning another skin that he had collected and sent to the museum 15 years
earlier.31 It was certainly not a comprehensive study and would be unacceptable
by today’s standards of wildlife biology and taxonomy. Nevertheless, he deter-
mined Merriam’s elk was a separate species because he believed the skull of
the old bull was generally larger than the average of the other three elk skulls
he examined and the skin was a slightly different color (Nelson 1902).
However, Nelson’s claim does not stand up to modern statistical analysis.
Nelson took nine different cranial measurements for each of the four skulls.
For six of the nine measurements, the values for the supposed Merriam’s skull
fall within the range of values for the other skulls. Nelson’s merriami skull is
the largest in only three measurements. In two of those measurements, however,
30.
See, for example, Murie 1951:54; Hall and Kelson 1959:1002; Cockrum 1960:250; Hall
1981:1085; Bryant and Maser 1985:30; Hoffmeister 1986:537; and O’Gara 2002:45.
Findley et al. (1975:327) believed Merriam’s elk to be a geographic race of C. elaphus.
31.
The museum had misplaced the skin that Nelson sent 15 years earlier. Unable to examine
the skin, he had to rely upon his notes.
Table 3
Comparative Measurements of Cervus merriami, Cervus roosevelti, and Cervus canad ensis
Comparative Skull
Measurements.
(All adult males.)
Occiput
to
Front
of
Premaxillæ
Palatal
Length
Length
of
Nasals
Gr
eat
es
t
B
r
eadt
h
of
Nasals
Greate
st
O
r
bi
tal
Breadth
Gr
eat
es
t
B
r
eadt
h
across
Pre
ma
xillæ
Breadth
acro
ss
Parietals
Zygomatic
Breadth
Breadth
below
Lachrymal
Fo
ssæ.
Cervus merriami, near
Springerville, AZ., No. 16211 Am.
Mus. Nat. History (Topotype)
498
288
183
83
194
99
168
203
157
Cervus roosevelti, Olympic Mts.,
Washington, No. 91579 U.S.N.M.,
Biological Survey. (Type)
516
297
192
84
195
98
163
190
150
Cervus canadensis, Ft. Berthold,
ND., No. 2910 U.S.N.M.
500
288
172
70
185
89
170
186
156
Cervus canadensis, Republican
Fork, NE., No. 49402 U.S.N.M.
492
292
172
65
174
86
156
180
150
Nelson's table of comparative skull measurements. Bold numbers indicate the largest value for each measurement.
U.S.N.M. stands for the United States National Museum, today known as the National Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution (after Nelson 1902:11, units not given but undoubtedly millimeters).
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 241
242
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
it is only 1 millimeter larger than the next largest measurement, an insignificant
difference. In only one value, the zygomatic breadth, is it distinguishably
largerby 7 percent. According to noted taxonomist and bioanthropologist
Colin Groves, “In many large ungulates [hoofed animals], especially in males
with their large armaments, the zygomatic arches become more robust, hence
wider, with age” (Groves, e-mail to Richardson Gill, January 16, 2011). Skull
number 16211 was from an old bull whose teeth were worn to the gum line
(Carmony et al. 2010:73). It is to be expected that the zygomatic arch would
be larger than that of other younger bulls. Nelson’s own data do not support a
significant difference between his merriami skull and the other skulls, cer-
tainly not a difference which would justify a species or subspecies designation.
Dr. Jerome Keating, the Peter T. Flawn Professor and former chairman of
the Department of Management Science and Statistics at The University of
Texas at San Antonio, analyzed Nelson’s data using modern, accepted multi-
variate statistical techniques and concluded that while the data set is very small
and cannot provide a definitive answer, the analysis showed all the skulls to be
from one species (Keating two e-mails to Richardson Gill, January 23, 2013,
and June 9, 2016; personal communication June 7, 2016). In other words, con-
trary to his claim, in strict statistical terms, Nelson’s own measurements do not
support the existence of a separate subspecies, much less a separate species. Nelson
presented evidence that skull number 16211 came from a large, old bull, not a
separate species or subspecies.
More recently, craniometry and antler measurements on small numbers of
specimens have been discredited as the sole method of establishing new species
or subspecies among elk (Geist 1998:182; O’Gara 2002:78). There is too much
natural variation in a population for measurements on a small set of individuals,
much less one individual, to reach meaningful conclusions about the population
as a whole. In addition to Nelson’s own data not showing meaningful differ-
ences in the morphology of the skulls he examined, other more recent morpho-
logical studies have failed to support the idea of Merriam’s elk.
Donald Hutton carried out an analysis of 297 skulls, or portions thereof,
from several locations within the range of the supposed Rocky Mountain
(C. c. nelsoni) subspecies and the supposed Manitoba (C. c. manitoben-
sis) subspecies of elk. He concluded that “the validity of the subspecies
nelsoni, manitobensis, and merriami, as differentiated from the typical
subspecies canadensis, is questionable” (Hutton 1972:12, 68).
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 243
According to Arizona wildlife biologists Neil Carmony, David Brown,
and Jim Heffelfinger, “The skull measurements of Merriam’s elk fall
within the range of normal variation of other elk subspecies. In short,
there has not been, and cannot now be, an adequate evaluation and com-
parison of Arizona’s native elk to other subspecies” (Carmony et al.
2010:73).
DNA
Carmony, Brown, and Heffelfinger (2010:7374) also reported on DNA
studies that compared two supposed Merriam’s elk skulls to other purported
elk subspecies. The supposed Merriam’s elk differed from the others by 3 to
6 base pairs, whereas the other skulls differed among themselves by 0 to 4
base pairs (bp). Taxonomist Bart O’Gara (2002:13) has stated that the minimum
number of samples required for reliable results is at least 20. David Ribble,
the chairman of the Department of Biology at Trinity University in San
Antonio, believed that, “assuming there is no sequencing error (an issue with
old specimen amplification), an average of 36 bp differences in a small
portion of mtDNA (111 bp) is not convincing evidence of subspecies dif-
ferentiation. Given the high rate of mutation in mtDNA, this difference would
not be surprising for a species with a large geographic range” (David Ribble,
e-mail to Richardson Gill, January 28, 2012). The genetic information pro-
vided by Carmony and his colleagues at this point is insufficient to make any
determination of whether the supposed Merriam’s elk represented a subspe-
cies, an ecotype, or neither. It is not enough information; there are not enough
base pair differences to make any kind of decision. Carmony and his col-
leagues cautioned that the results they reported, “Although interesting, one
has to keep in mind the Merriam’s elk sample was only represented by two
male individuals collected 100 years ago. Since gene-pools change over time,
it is difficult to say if the results would be the same if the analysis used a
large number of recent samples to compare subspecies” (Carmony et al.
2010:7374). The DNA studies, then, have failed to support the existence of
Merriam’s elk.
As we have seen, neither recent morphological studies nor modern DNA
studies support the existence of Merriam’s elk. As a result, modern cervid tax-
onomists today discount the existence of Merriam’s elk as either a separate
species or a separate subspecies of North American elk. Supporting statements
from researchers on this topic are listed below.
244
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
With regard to whether or not Merriam’s elk is a separate species as
claimed by Nelson and Bailey, Geist (author of Deer of the World: Their
Evolution, Behaviour, and Ecology) stated, “To consider Merriam’s elk
a different species is complete insanity” (Valerius Geist, e-mail to Rich-
ardson Gill, November 17, 2011, emphasis in original).
With regard to whether or not Merriam’s elk existed as a separate subspe-
cies, taxonomist Bart O’Gara felt the idea “That elk were, indeed, iso-
lated in the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Northwest-
ern Chihuahualeading to speciation or subspeciationseems open to
question” (O’Gara 2002:56).
Christine Schonewald, formerly a scientist with the U.S. Department of
the Interior and adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis,
wrote, “During professional consultation with the eastern and southwest-
ern park and forest managers the author became aware of additional
information concerning C. e. merriami and C. e. canadensis. The valid-
ity appears doubtful for at least two subspecies C. e. canadensis and C.
e. merriami.32 She has suggested that the supposed Merriam’s elk was
a southern extension of plains elk. “Merriami resembles what would
occur in northern U.S. or southern Canada, presently” (Schonewald
1994:435n1; e-mail to Richardson Gill, July 11, 2011).
Dale Toweill, Idaho wildlife manager and the senior editor of the com-
prehensive work, North American Elk: Ecology and Management, wrote,
“Considering the wide-ranging nature of elk and the lack of physical
barriers to movement added to the very small number of samples from
purported Merriam’s elk, I strongly suspect that designation of C. e.
merriami as a distinct subspecies will be overturned following taxo-
nomic revision (Toweill and Thomas 2002; Dale Toweill, e-mail to
Richardson Gill, December 28, 2011).
Colin Groves, the senior author of Ungulate Taxonomy, stated emphati-
cally, “There is not—never was—any such thing as ‘Merriam’s elk’
(Groves, e-mail to Richardson Gill, November 20, 2011; Groves and
Grubb 2011).
32.
Schonewald defined C. e. canadensis as a now extinct subspecies that inhabited the
eastern United States.
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 245
Merriam’s Elk in Texas
How, then, did the idea that the native elk in Texas were Merriam’s elk come
about? Writing in 1905, Vernon Bailey first suggested that reports of elk in the
Guadalupe Mountains of Texas in the nineteenth century were Merriam’s elk,
but Bailey was unable to find any specimens from Texas. He based his deter-
mination that elk in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas were probably Merriam’s
elk on part of one skull and antlers from the Sacramento Mountains in New
Mexico. According to Bailey, “No complete specimen, nor even a mounted
head of this elk is in existence from any point in New Mexico, although there
are a few old horns and part of a skull from near Ruidoso, and horns have been
seen at ranches east of Cloudcroft and in the Mogollon Mountains” (Bailey
1931:44). In his influential 1905 book, Biological Survey of Texas, Bailey wrote:
C. merriami Nelson. Merriam Elk.
There are no wild elk to-day in the State of Texas, but years ago, as
several old ranchmen have told me, they ranged south to the southern
part of the Guadalupe Mountains, across the Texas line. I could not
get an actual record of one killed in Texas, or nearer than 6 or 8 miles
north of the line, but as they were common to within a few years in
the Sacramento Mountains, only 75 miles farther north, I am inclined
to credit the rather indefinite reports of their former occurrence in
this part of Texas. Specimens of horns and a part of a skull from the
Sacramento Mountains indicate that the species was very similar to
and probably identical with the Arizona elk described by E.W. Nelson
who has aided me in making the comparisons. (Bailey 1905:60,
emphasis ours)
It is important to emphasize that Bailey examined no elk specimens from
Texas nor any complete specimens from New Mexico, only one partial skull,
a skin, and antlers. The paragraph above, nonetheless, has been the basis for
the belief that the native elk in Texas were Merriam’s elk.
Today’s Elk in the Trans-Pecos
As research for his master’s degree at Texas Tech University, Christopher Dunn,
working with his faculty adviser, Dr. Robert Bradley, undertook a study to
246
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
determine the origins and genetic affinities of populations of free-ranging elk
in the Trans-Pecos. He designed his research to test three hypotheses:
First, it is known that a number of private ranch owners released elk onto
their ranches in West Texas and additional releases were made by Texas
Parks and Wildlife Department (Witt 2008:12). High-fence hunting
resorts have bred captive-reared elk in order to have populations of elk
that could be hunted. The first hypothesis, then, is that the free-ranging
elk are descendants of the private or public releases of elk or escapees
from the high-fence ranches.
Second, in 1928, Judge J.C. Hunter introduced elk from the Black Hills
of South Dakota into McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains.
Those elk had been introduced to the Black Hills from Yellowstone Na-
tional Park. The second hypothesis was that the elk reintroduced to
McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupes had migrated and repopulated
other parts of the Trans-Pecos and, therefore, would be genetically related
to the elk in South Dakota today.
The third scenario that could explain the repopulation of elk in the Trans-
Pecos is the emigration of native elk from New Mexico into Texas through
the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico and the Guadalupe, Delaware,
and Davis mountains in Texas. These natural corridors could be used for
the transit of elk from established herds in New Mexico. If the free-
ranging elk now resident in Texas were isolated from the New Mexico
elk, it might be possible to determine genetic differences between the
two populations. If, however, the elk are freely traveling back and forth,
admixture would be occurring and it would not be possible to detect any
genetic differences between the populations in New Mexico and Texas.
Dunn collected samples from elk in the Davis and Glass mountains in Texas,
from several sites in New Mexico, and from South Dakota. Mitochondrial DNA
sequences were examined in combination with microsatellite loci, to assess the
genetic divergence, relationship, and origin of the contemporary elk herds in
the Trans-Pecos. Further, he ran computer simulations of population genetic
parameters using the microsatellite data. The results of the DNA analysis and
the computer simulations support a scenario consistent with the origin of elk in
the Davis and Glass mountains being the result of natural emigrants from New
Mexico, beginning in the 1930s. In addition, simulations did not detect evidence
Are Elk Native to Texas? Historical and Archaeological Evidence 247
of a genetic bottleneck during the past 350 generations, indicating a long, shared
history between Texas and New Mexico elk (Dunn 2016:35, 16, 20).
Elk most likely emigrated from the Lincoln National Forest area into
the northern regions of the Trans-Pecos via the Davis, Sacramento,
and Delaware Mountain ranges. Based on the data present herein, the
scenario that Texas elk are a natural population and a product of
emigration from herds in southern New Mexico and subsequent es-
tablishment of viable populations is most likely. . . . It appears that
elk are still currently, and historically exchanging genetic material
(Dunn 2016:1718).
Dunn has demonstrated that elk today migrate into and out of the Trans-
Pecos and are exchanging genetic material with populations to the north. The
same would have been true in the past. The elk in Texas were never isolated
from the vast genetic pool of elk in and east of the Rocky Mountains. After the
extirpation that occurred in the nineteenth century, elk began to move into and
recolonize areas of their former native range in the Trans-Pecos through natural
immigration.
Conclusion and Discussion
There have been no DNA studies on bones from native elk that lived in Texas
before 1900, which could possibly be an area for future research for those
bones found in archaeological contexts. Neither Nelson nor Bailey ever ex-
amined any specimens of elk from Texas. DNA analysis and computer simula-
tions indicate that the free-ranging elk in the Davis and Glass mountains today
are natural populations that migrate in and out of the Trans-Pecos and in and
out of New Mexico. Given the lack of evidence supporting Merriam’s elk as
a separate species or subspecies, it is most likely that the elk that lived in Texas
in the past would have been genetically indistinguishable from the single elk
subspecies in North America in and east of the Rocky Mountains and, accord-
ing to some researchers, would have been the same subspecies as all other elk
in North America. The elk in Texas today are likely to be genetically indistin-
guishable from the elk that lived in Texas in the past. The native elk that once
lived in Texas and the free-ranging elk that live in Texas today most likely
were and are not only the same species, but the same subspecies, Cervus ca-
nadensis canadensis.
248
Journal of Big Bend Studies 28 Gill, Gill, Peel, and Vasquez
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