Whilst working on a fragment of coastal prairie in Gearhart, Oregon, we were pleasantly surprised (and alarmed!) by an elk herd that was passing through our work site. While the cows grazed at a safe distance, two juvenile bulls let curiosity get the better of them and gave us an up-close show. We were thrilled to see them so close, and at the same time nervous to have such powerful and unpredictable creatures so near to us. As we worked in our plots, the pair of bulls plodded closer, nibbling at grass and staring us down. One became enthralled by the long measuring tape we had laid out as our baseline for setting up a series of plots. He nibbled it tentatively at first, and then chewed vigorously, even swinging the end of the tape back and forth! We were collectively both amused and horrified. "Don't eat the tape!" "No! Hey! Stop!" "Aaaahhhh!" Although they paid no attention to our yelling, they did respond momentarily to loud hand-clapping, high-pitched screams, and barking. Eventually, our voices hoarse and our tape chewed up, we fell silent and gave in to nature. Later, when the elk herd had moved on, we recovered our elk-saliva'd tape. Its handle was broken but otherwise intact, a small price to pay for a great experience on a rainy day in the field.
We were curious to learn about the elk we encountered, and would like to share our new-found knowledge 🙂
They are Roosevelt Elk, named after Theodore Roosevelt, and are one of four remaining subspecies in the country. For centuries, they have played an important role in the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, grazing on understory vegetation and maintaining prairie habitat. Many of the same factors that threaten species that IAE studies are also a threat to Roosevelt Elk (e.g. habitat loss, encroachment by humans.)
We had joked that the elk were there to help us with our monitoring, but as it turns out, they truly are there to help the plants, by playing their part in maintaining coastal prairie habitat.