THE STORY OF ELK IVORY
"Pearl of the West"
Long ago in the Mastadonian Period the North American elk. Cervus canadensis, roamed the plains of what is now the western United States. These beasts were as large as their cousin the bison, massive and strong with bodies built to survive the intense climate. The animal's necks were thick and muscular, not only to support the weight of the large antler racks that towered overhead, but also to support two awesome ivory tusks that loomed out from the top lip like deadly spears ready to spar.
The extreme environment of the ice age melted and with it the mammals of North America have genetically mellowed, the large ivory tusks receding up in front of the eyeteeth.
Elk are the only native North American land barren animal that has ivory tusks. This is the story of the ivory tusk buds of the elk, destined to be the "pearl of the west."
Elk ivory has been found in digs among artifacts that date back 5,000 years. The most ancient confirmed elk ivory ornaments were unearthed at the Fort Yates archaeological site along the Missouri River in south central North Dakota. They are roughly 530 years old.
To the Native Americans, elk or wapiti spiritually means stamina, In the early 1800s the Plains Indian tribes acknowledged the thrill of tracking, stalking and riding the wind with the power of wapiti. Ivory "value" adorned every occasion, especially for women. A prospective Crow Indian suitor would have to supply 300 ivories for his bride's wedding dress. The bridesmaids would take pieces of fringe and bead the ivories into concentric rows covering the gown. The ivory trade between trappers and Indians was hot, with ivory being as important as horses and guns.
The late 1880s created a shift in the history of Wapiti that would effect the ivory trade forever. Settlers were filtering into the high country. Hereditary elk migration routes became obstacle courses of fences, ranch buildings and plowed fields. At this time it was popular to make rings and watch fobs from the elk's tusk. Early settlers from Jackson Hole made extra money by selling the tusk that came from the two elk that they were allowed to kill each fall and by scavenging tusk from elk that died during the winter from natural causes. This supply increased yearly as me elk were disrupted from their migratory routes and starved due to inadequate winter range.
Gangs of outlaws appeared poaching elk for their ivories only. They became known throughout the land as the "Tuskers." The Tuskers built small hideout cabins, the most famous being at the northwestern side of Jackson Lake. In 1905 the Tuskers were such a problem that the Wyoming legislature set aside a portion of Jackson Hole as the Teton Game Preserve and banned all hunting there. However, elk still ruthlessly died at the hands of the Tuskers.
It wasn't until 1912, when President Roosevelt put elk ivory on prohibition did the tusk boom bust. Killing an elk just for the ivory was a felony. Jackson Hole was the last stronghold for the Tuskers. Shootouts rang aloud up north on the lake the feds and the local game wardens exchanged gunfire with the tuskers until they were run out of the valley. The U.S. Congress then passed an appropriation with special wording to establish the first portions of the National Elk Refuge.
Today, the Jackson Hole herd, one of the largest in North America, continues to roam its ancestral territory. Thanks to strict regulations, license fees and men and women who are dedicated to the preservation of wildlife, elk ivory is once again politically correct to wear and enjoy as a symbol of love.