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Now Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are putting the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on the map.

Nearly 200 years after the intrepid explorers trundled through Missoula en route west, the Elk Foundation is one of 112 "official learning sites" along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

The designation - announced Thursday - means the RMEF visitor center on West Broadway will be included on federal maps and tourism literature being produced for the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06.

So far, the Elk Foundation is the only such site in Missoula.

In a presentation at the visitor center, an interpretive specialist for the National Park Service hailed the strength and originality of the Elk Foundation's new exhibit exploring the importance of elk to the Corps of Discovery.

No wildlife species figured more prominently in the explorers' survival and success than did elk, according to the exhibit. The captains and their expeditionary corps killed and ate at least 375 elk during their journey from St. Louis to the West Coast - and back again.

"It's a great display," said Laurie Heupel, the Park Service specialist who traveled to Missoula with the Elk Foundation's certificate and sign.

"A lot of the other sites are outdoors, but this is unique," she said. "Most visitors think buffalo are all that Lewis and Clark ate. Most people don't know that pages of their journal were written on elk skin."

The exhibit also shows how land and wildlife habitat along the Lewis and Clark Trail have changed over the past 200 years.

"Elk were once found in all areas of the United States except New England and Florida," said Denise Wagner, RMEF's director of education and coordinator of the Lewis and Clark exhibit.

From a pre-Colonial population of 10 million, elk now number about 1 million in the United States.

"The major culprit is habitat loss from urban development and land use changes," Wagner said. The Lewis and Clark bicentennial, she said, is an "opportunity to reiterate the importance of conserving elk habitat."

In fact, over the past 20 years, the Elk Foundation has shepherded conservation and education projects on nearly 4 million acres of habitat for elk and other wildlife. More than 350 of those projects have occurred along the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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