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Interpreting the Evidence

Elk Release, Adirondacks, c. 1920s

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Animals
    Environment

  • Primary Source Types:

    Photograph

  • Regions:

    North Country
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Elk Release, Adirondacks, c. 1920s in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
An elk being released into the Adirondacks, circa 1920s.
Historical Context
Before European colonization of America, elk probably lived relatively undisturbed. The Eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) once roamed from northern New York down to Georgia. However, as more and more settlers began migrating to America, the elk population rapidly declined and even vanished in some regions, such as New York.

The Indigenous inhabitants and European settlers treated the elk very differently. Indigenous groups hunted the elk in New York for thousands of years. They ate the elk meat and used the bones and antlers for weapons; the hides for war shields, tipi covers, robes, and moccasins; and the teeth for necklaces, decorations, and game pieces. Europeans also hunted the elk for meat, but they also killed those who damaged crops or were occupying land that was important for livestock grazing. The settlers changed the elk’s natural habitats and migration passages to agricultural and village settlements.

Elk populations continued to dwindle in the nineteenth century. Elk were exterminated in New York by the mid-1800s. The last recorded native Eastern elk in New York was documented in 1847. By the late 1800s, elk populations nationwide were dwindling due to market demands for luxuries such as elk antlers, hides, or ivory canine teeth. Elk populations were decimated everywhere east of the Mississippi River by the late 1880s.

However, conservationists around the turn of the twentieth century reintroduced the Eastern elk and other native species to New York. In 1901, a private citizen released twenty elk in the Racquette River area. In the years 1901-1907, an additional 155 elk were dispersed through the Adirondack region.  These elk maintained their population, and by 1907 there was an estimated population of about 350. But, the population could not sustain itself over time, and elk decreased through the 1930s and 1940s. Scientists theorized that a parasitic worm, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis infected the elk population. The last known elk in New York was killed in 1946.

Recently there has been renewed interest in restoring elk to the Catskills and Adirondack regions of New York. However, no elk release program has been initiated to date.

Essential Question
How do human settlement patterns influence the natural environment?
 
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the reasons for this action.
Historical Challenges
There are native New York animal species (not elk) that are now completely extinct. Name one.
 
Interdisciplinary Connections
Science: How do scientists track animal populations? What animals in the United States are on the endangered species list?
English Language Arts: Think about the impact that elk releases would have on the environment and the society. Pick a side and justify your answer.