Rocky Mountain Elk

Antone Holmquist Photo Credit

Physical Characteristics: 6 ½ – 8 ½ feet long, 4-5 feet tall, 400-1100 pounds, and a tail length of 4 ¾ -7 inches long. In the summer has a golden brown coat and grayish brown in the winter. The coat is also a little longer in the winter. Head, neck, and legs tend to always be darker than the rest of the coat. There is a large yellowish to orangish rump patch that is bordered by black or dark brown fur. A male elk has a dark brown throat mane. By the fourth year a bull usually has 6 “points” to a side of his antlers. Bulls shed their antlers around March, with new ones growing in late April, becoming mature in August.

Diet: Elk are considered grazers or browsers. Sedges and grasses make up 80-90% of their diet in the spring and summer. Woody plants and fallen leaves form much of their winter and fall diet. Salt is also important, and they will travel vast distances to eat salt-rich soil.

Habitat: Elk prefer upland forests and prairies, but sometimes range into alpine tundra, coniferous forests, or brushlands. In the Rockies, elk tend to move to higher elevations in the spring and lower elevations in fall. The Selway and Lochsa drainages have produced large elk herds over the last century, particularly in the N. Fork. The great fires of 1910 created abundant habitat for elk populations to thrive and increase. Forest succession and a lack of stand-replacing fires since then has greatly changed the habitat type, and are largely responsible for elk populations declining in places like the “Lolo Zone.”

Range: Elk occur from northeastern British Columbia southeast to southern Manitoba, south to southern Arizona/New Mexico, and along the Pacific Coast from Vancouver Island to northern California. Elk have been introduced as a game species in many areas.

Reproduction: Cows give birth to a single calf between late May and early June. Their gestation period is about 8 ½ months. Calves stand and nurse within an hour of being born. In 2-4 weeks the cow and calf rejoin the herd. Calves are weaned in the fall.

Threats: Development is driving elk into higher elevations and less productive habitat, taking away critical low-elevation habitat and forage. The damning of the N. Fork Clearwater River by Dworshak Dam is a great example. Road building, logging, invasive weeds and off-road vehicles impact elk populations too.

Miscellaneous: Elk are great runners and swimmers due to their long and powerful legs. When they sense danger or are alarmed they will raise their heads high, open their eyes wide, move stiffly, and communicate with each other by curling back their upper lip, grinding their teeth and hissing softly.


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