Rocky Mountain Elk

Rocky Mountain Elk, Antone Holmquist Photo

(Cervus canadensis)

Physical Characteristics: 6 ½ -8 ½ feet long, 4-5 feet tall at shoulder, 400-1100 pounds. This large, stocky deer wears a golden brown to reddish brown coat with a pale rump patch and tail. A bull elk has a dark brown throat mane and he starts growing antlers in his second year. By his fourth year the bull’s antlers typically bear six “points” to a side. The antlers are usually shed in March, allowing new ones to grow in late April and becoming mature in August. Bulls leave saplings stripped of bark after rubbing velvet from their antlers.

Diet: Elk are incredibly adaptive grazers. Sedges and grasses make up 80-90 percent of their spring and summer diet when herds graze in alpine meadows above the tree line. With the onset of cold weather they migrate down the slopes to sheltered valleys and browse woody plants, bark, and fallen leaves. Elk may travel vast distances to devour the salt-rich soil that provides that necessary dietary component.

Habitat: Elk prefer upland forests and prairies, though sometimes range into alpine tundra, coniferous forests, or brushlands. Tend to move to higher elevations in spring and lower elevations in the fall; do not keep a permanent den but often leaves flattened areas of grass or snow where it has bedded down. For the most part, these ungulates like to bed among dense trees during the daytime and venture out to forage in the twilight hours.

Range: In North America elk are found from northeastern British Columbia southeast to southern Manitoba, south to southern Arizona and New Mexico, and along the Pacific Coast from Vancouver Island to northern California. In addition, they have been introduced as a game species and as ranch livestock in many areas.

Reproduction: Adult elk usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year. During the mating season or “rut,” bulls compete for the attentions of cows and will defend his harem from rival bulls. Rubbing his antlers on trees to polish them, the bull will preen, bugle, and walk back and forth both to attract mates and so his opponent can assess his prowess. By the autumn of the female’s second year she will produce a single offspring, isolated from the herd until the calf is large enough to escape predators. Calves stay with their mothers for about year, leaving about the time the next season’s offspring are produced. After the rut, females form herds of up to fifty members; newborn calves are kept close by a series of vocalizations. When approached by predators—wolves, coyotes, or a mountain lion—the strongest females may defend using their front legs to kick at their attackers, and issue a series of guttural grunts and territorial body positioning that deters all but the most determined hunters. Average life span in the wild is 10-13 years.

Threats: By the end of the 1800s elk numbers had dropped to a dangerously low 41,000 in the entire continent, and had completely gone extinct in the eastern United States. Conservation, intervention, and reintroduction have contributed to the species recovering to nearly 1 million. While natural habitat has been lost to logging and road building, elk in some areas benefit from artificially lush golf courses and agricultural fields. Roads, town sites, and human activity have significantly decreased elk’s major predators. Elk are also susceptible to a handful of parasites and diseases, most of which rarely lead to major mortality rates in wild or captive elk.

Miscellaneous: Elk have played a significant role in the cultural history of many human groups: Neolithic petroglyphs and pictograms of the animal were carved into cliffs by natives of the southwestern United States, and many tribes—particularly among the Plateau and western Plains groups—relied on elk hides for clothing and shelter, and attributed spiritual roles to the animal. The dramatic decline of elk in North America during the 19th century prompted such measures as the Canadian government’s creation of Elk Island National Park in 1907; the great numbers of elk currently seen in mountain parks owe their presence to human efforts intended to encourage immigration and population growth such as reintroduction and supplementation of wild herd’s winter diets. The pitched bugle of the bull elk is as iconic a sound in the Rocky Mountains as the howl of a grey wolf, and along with golden aspen leaves, honking geese, and crisp frost, signals the turning of summer to autumn.




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