Dating back to prehistoric times, elk actually had tusks, which have been reduced to inch-long “ivories” that still hold a lot of value and meaning to the hunters of today.

Imagine leaning into an evergreen that’s enough cover to conceal your silhouette yet just sparse enough to allow free movement of your arms to draw back a bow. In essence, it’s perfect. The stench of elk fills your nostrils and you can hear what you know is a bull stomping toward you from the left. Since you’re so low to the ground it’s his mid-leg you see first. Slowly raising your eye up the leg to the breast and up the neck you focus on his tusks and have no doubt he’s the big bull you’ve been dreaming about.

If you’ve ever killed an elk, you likely know that another keepsake besides the antlers exist just inside the upper mouth. Believe it or not, about 25 million years ago the elk bared vestigial tusks that protruded from the mouth, rather than antlers. Today, however, they are no longer than an inch and more so resemble a worn, rounded tooth.

These “ivories” are technically canine teeth though they are not used for chewing nor is there a counterpart on the lower jaw. For centuries, they were worn by Native Americans to represent social status as well as a variety of reasons such as granting a warrior bravery or a woman the power of fertility. Elk have always been a main source of sustenance to the Indian and mountain man alike, and were once in abundance throughout the United States. Even for modern day hunters, the meat from one elk can last the average family up to a year.

Elk ivories became popular adornments on clothes and jewelry in the early 1900s when they were used especially to decorate watch fobs (the short chains attached to pocket watches). These fobs were the unofficial symbol of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, also known simply as “the Elks.” Unfortunately, the popularity of the ivories created a problem in the way of poaching. The campaign mounted by the Elks to eradicate poaching led to the creation of the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming where thousands of people flock each year to witness their migration.

Scientists are not entirely sure that any species of the deer family made it to North America still bearing tusks though they were prominent in Asia. Most skeletons that have been recovered on this continent are inconclusive. Elk are highly adaptable creatures and as history shows, have thrived in nearly every climate where they’ve been introduced.

Show us your collection of elk ivories by posting a photo to our Facebook page. We’d love to hear the stories behind some of your great adventures in wapiti country.