The North American Elk (Cervus elaphus) is also called the Wapiti, a Shawnee word meaning "white rump." Elk are the second largest members of the deer family, moose being the largest. They are two-toed, hoofed mammals that are strictly herbivorous. They were once thought to be a subspecies of the European Red Deer—the two groups do have striking physical similarities—but DNA testing has shown the Wapiti to be its own distinct species.
Elk vary their color from a light tan coat in the summer, to a dense, darker brown coat in winter. Males will frequently have a thicker, darker ruff, or mane of hair growing on their neck. Both males and females sport the characteristic beige rump, but only males grow antlers. A male elk sheds his antlers in March and begins growing them again in May. When it comes to antlers, bigger is better and the larger the spread, the more females the male will gather for his harem. A healthy bull elk, in his prime, my possess a set of antlers that stand more than 4 feet above his head and weigh over 40 pounds. Elk are large animals, standing 4 – 5 feet at the shoulder and weighing anywhere between 300 – 1,100 pounds, males being bigger than females.
Elk once roamed all across the United States and Canada. They were a staple for Native American people, providing meat for food, hides for clothing and tents, antlers and bones for tools and weapons as well as elk teeth for currency and decoration. During this time it is believed the elk population was close to 10 million. Upon the arrival of European settlers, elk numbers began to decline. Settlers went from using the elk for sustenance to simply destroying them because they ate crops and competed for grazing with livestock. The elks' migration paths and habitats were turned into farms and cities, further reducing their numbers. In the early 1800s, elk were being killed for just their antlers and large canine teeth known as ivories. By 1900 barely 100,000 elk remained. A group of conservationists made up of naturalists and hunters began working to save the remaining elk population. They passed strict hunting regulations and created sanctuaries where elk could live and reproduce, unmolested by man. A recent census shows the elk population has rebounded to over 1 million.
Although the elks' range is a fraction of what it once was, the animals are no longer considered threatened. Elk have even been reintroduced as far East as Pennsylvania and as far South as Texas. Elk avoid dense forests, preferring the open spaces of aspen groves, mountain meadows, clear cuts and desert valleys. Elk will migrate through varied elevations as they change their summer range for their winter one. A typical elk gang will roam a home range of 600 square miles. Adult elk spend the majority of the year in single-sex herds. Female elk, or cows, may form herds with as many as 400 members, all following one dominant matriarch. A herd of elk is much safer from predators than an elk alone. Bachelor herds of adult males are smaller and generally occur during the time of the year when males don't have their antlers. The males work cooperatively at this time to ensure each other's protection.
Mating takes place in the fall. Testosterone levels in males make them increasingly aggressive and drive them to attract and defend a harem of up to 20 females. Males dig up the ground with their antlers and hooves and bugle (a loud, brassy sound) to advertise their health and size to females and to warn other males to stay away. When two evenly sized males meet up, they battle, locking antlers and shoving in shows of brute strength. These battles frequently result in injury, but rarely result in death. This time is called "the rut" and lasts from September through October, sometimes into November. During this season, a bull elk will spend so much of his time guarding and protecting his harem that he will rarely eat and can loose as much as 20% of his body weight.
When winter begins, cows and bulls separate, rejoining their previous herds. In the late spring or early summer, cows will leave the all-female herd to give birth. The single calf (twins are rare) is born between late May and early July. Calves weigh about 35 lbs at birth and their fur is dotted with cream-colored spots along their backs. A calf can stand after the first 20 minutes of life, but it can not run fast or for long periods of time. For the first few weeks, the mother will hide her calf in thick brush and graze at a distance so she won't draw attention to its presence. The calf stays motionless, stirring only when the mother returns for nursing. This is when the calf is most vulnerable. Bears, coyotes, mountain lions and wolves will be looking for it. The calf's spotted coat helps to camouflage it and the calf itself produces no odor, making it harder to find. If the female elk feels her calf is threatened she will rush to its defense, using hooves and teeth to drive the predator away. When the calf is approximately 3 weeks old, both it and its mother will rejoin the female herd. Once within the herd, the calf's chances of survival are greatly improved.
Fun Elk Facts
- Thomas Pennant, a naturalist, noted that elk seemed to be growing scarce. He made this comment in 1785.
- Scientists believe the elk's ivories (large canine teeth) are rudimentary tusks.
- While a male's antlers are growing, they are covered with a thin, fuzzy skin called velvet. Blood flows through the antlers, helping them grow as much as 1 inch/day. This blood flow also acts as "air-conditioning," cooling the large male through the heat of the summer.
- A wolf pack will take on an adult elk, but, surprisingly, more adult elk are killed by mountain lions than wolves. Of course man is a major predator as well.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
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