Elk in Corbin Park

The following story was published in SooNipi Magazine, Fall 2007 issue.

By Mary Comeau-Kronenwetter, Ed.D.

One hundred years ago, one could hear the bugle of a bull elk in Andover, New Hampshire. Sixty-six years ago, two hundred men spread out across Lempster, Washington, Goshen and Unity and took forty-six wild elk in a two-day season. The elk, more accurately called wapiti or Cervus Canadensis has never been a native of  New Hampshire, but briefly roamed free in the state during the first half of the 1900s.  Newport-born financier Austin Corbin imported elk into the state in the 1890s as he stocked his private game reserve, the Blue Mountain Forest Park (known informally as Corbin’s Park). Corbin acquired between 265-373 deeds, which included over sixty farms across the townships of Cornish, Croydon, Grantham, Newport and Plainfield. The park was enclosed with thirty-six miles of fencing and was stocked with wild boar, moose, bison, bighorn sheep, elk, Chinese pheasant, and other exotic species. Wildlife conservation was Corbin’s primary aim; hunting was only permitted later to thin the population of rapidly increasing species such as boar.

Austin Corbin’s son, Austin Corbin III, took over the park management after the untimely death of his father in an 1896 carriage accident. During his tenure, he donated or sold animals from the park’s bison, deer and elk herds to various government and private game reserves and zoos across the United States. It is a well-known story of how Corbin Park bison helped repopulate the almost extinct bison population in the United States.  The story of Corbin Park elk in New Hampshire is less known.

Ten million elk are thought to have occupied the United States before European settlement. Native Americans hunted elk for food, and used the hides, bones, antlers and teeth for practical and decorative purposes. European settlers and market hunters reduced the population almost to extinction. By the late 1800s, it is estimated that only 50,000 elk remained in the Western states.

This second largest species of deer (moose being the largest) ranges up to five feet at the shoulder, with 1,000 pounds not uncommon. Males sport magnificent antlers. Their name wapiti comes from the Shawnee term “white rump.” Their habitat is primarily forest and forest edge. They graze on grasses, plants, leaves and bark, and each typically consumes ten to twenty pounds of food daily. They compete with other deer species for food; one elk consumes three times as much food as one deer. While moose prefer a solitary lifestyle and deer prefer small cliques, elk live and travel in herds. A dominant bull will defend a harem of cows that can number over twenty.

In the Smithsonian Institution’s History of Corbin Preserve (1964) Richard Manville reported that sixty elk were imported into Corbin Park from Northern Minnesota in 1891 and soon became nearly as tame as cattle.  They flourished overall, with numbers occasionally declining during particularly severe winters. In 1903, Austin Corbin III presented eight cows and four bulls to the State of New Hampshire. The Andover Fish & Game Club released the animals in the vicinity of Ragged Mountain.

New Hampshire Fish and Game naturalist Helenette Silver documented the history of the released elk in New Hampshire during the first half of the 1900s. In A History of New Hampshire Game and Furbearers (1957) she writes of the growth of the original group of gifted elk. By 1912, up to forty elk were seen in one herd. Farmers had begun presenting claims for damage to fields and orchards. However, it wasn’t until 1915 that New Hampshire passed a law requiring payment for game damage. Property owners in Andover, Webster and other locations, took matters into their own hands and shot the elk on their property. Other elk, when they moved on to the area around Cardigan Mountain, were killed by poachers around Canaan.

In 1933, Austin Corbin III made another gift of elk. This time, two bulls and ten cows were released in Washington and Goshen into the Pillsbury Reservation. At the time, it was a state game refuge. The elk again flourished, with their population estimated to be between sixty and two hundred. The animals began expanding their territory into several surrounding towns, including Washington, Lempster, Goshen, and Unity. Again, individuals who lost gardens and crops to the voracious elk complained to state and local government officials.

In 1941, the state decided to reduce the herd through its first (and only) two-day elk hunting season. Two hundred hunters, who had paid $5 for a special license, bagged forty-six elk on December 17 and 18 of that year. Considering that the elk were shot in herds, it is fortunate that no accidents were reported. After the hunt, conservation officer Jesse Scott estimated that only thirteen elk remained in the New Hampshire woods. In1942, the first of a number of surveys was done, scouting possible locations in Northern New Hampshire where the elk might be relocated to avoid their trespass into private fields and orchards.

Claims filed for crop damages in the early 1950s spurred the State legislature to pass An Act Relative to Elk (Chapter 43). And in 1955: “The director of fish and game is hereby directed to reduce the elk herd in the state to a population that will no longer present a potential threat to agricultural interests. The reduction of this herd shall be started at once and carried to completion without unnecessary delay.”

The act also contained a provision stating that proceeds from the carcasses sold go toward “the establishment of an elk herd in the northern counties of the state.”

On March 16, 1955, conservation officers shot fourteen cows and two bulls in Lempster. A few days later, an irate farmer shot two bull elk. At this point, the Fish and Game Department estimated that there were perhaps between twenty and thirty free-ranging elk remaining in the state. It is commonly believed that the remaining elk were killed by farmers or poached illegally by hunters. None of the various proposals for relocating the elk to more northern or western parts of the state were ever enacted.

Although unsubstantiated reports of wild elk sightings persist, Steve Weber, Chief of New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Wildlife Division, recently confirmed that there are no wild free-range elk in New Hampshire today. The only elk to be found in the state are located on a handful of livestock or game farms and at the Blue Mountain Forest Association, today a private-membership hunting club.

For a brief period in New Hampshire history, the bugle of a wild wapiti bull could be heard echoing in the mountains of central New Hampshire. Like the howl of the gray wolf, a native now extinct in New Hampshire, the sound has disappeared from the granite state wilderness. Today, according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, there are about one million wild free-ranging elk live in the western United States: Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, and from Ontario west in Canada.

end of story by Mary Comeau-Kronenwetter


click HERE to see an old 1954 article in Sports Illustrated (back before today's Politically Correct liberals made guns & hunting "evil", and hunting was considered a "sport" that could be described in SI) about the big New Hampshire elk hunt

Click HERE to go to my full "Corbin Park" page