Elk are the second largest members of the deer family (Cervidae) behind moose, the largest. Males in Idaho will weigh between 600 to over 1000 pounds (270-450 kg), while females weigh between 450 to 650 pounds (200-320 kg). They will stand up to 5 feet (1.5 m)at the shoulder. Males have large antlers consisting of a single beam angling upward and backward for up to 5 feet from the head, with up to 6 and occasionally 7 points or tines on each side of adult bulls. Females do not have antlers. Elk have short tails, only about 3 to 8 inches (7.5-20 mm) surrounded by a tan colored rumppatch. Their backs are brownish to tan above, somewhat reddish during the summer, and their underside is darker. Males especially appear to have thick necks with a dark brown mane on their throat region. The name “elk” leads to confusion. It comes from the German word “elch” which refers to the European moose. Shawnee Indians named elk, “wapiti” which means white rump. The red deer of Europe is the same species as the elk, but it is referred to as a “deer”. Here, in North America we clearly distinguish between elk and moose, but it is confusing for European visitors.
Elk are formerly widespread in North America, but now range from southern British Columbia through parts of Alberta into Manitoba south to central New Mexico and Arizona forested mountains, and from Vancouver Island south to northern California along the Pacific coast. Isolated populations, mostly transplanted, exist in some eastern states and even into Oklahoma.
Their habitat varies according to location. They seem to prefer mountainous country with mixed open, grassy meadows, marshy meadows, river flats, and aspen parkland, as well as coniferous forests, brushy clearcuts, forest edges, and shrub steppe. Studies in Idaho, have shown that some populations live year-round in sagebrush desert, and that they used grass-shrub for feeding and tall shrub or pole timber for resting in spring; they fed in clearcuts and shrub fields and rested in pole timber in summer; and stayed in mesic (moderate moisture) pole timber in autumn.
There is considerable geographic and seasonal variation in the diet of elk. However, this species is primarily a grazer, relying of grasses for most of the year, but they also consume forbs in summer, and may browse on willow and aspen where grasses are unavailable, especially during winter months.
They are active at night, but most active at dusk and dawn. diurnal feeding is more common in summer than in winter, but feeding periods are more prolonged in winter, and are concentrated in morning and evening. Individuals tend to bed down in meadows in the afternoon and again after midnight to chew their cud. In Idaho, and throughout the northern Rockies, herds move to lower elevations in winter to feed. Elk tend to avoid roads in all seasons. Individuals exhibit a high fidelity to their home range, but may abandon it if they are excessively disturbed. The species is gregarious , though some bulls may be solitary. Males tend to spend much of winter spring and summer in separate male groups or solitarily from female and young herds. Females form herds which includes young of the year and even some yearling bulls. Males shed antlers in March and April. They are preyed on by mountain lions and wolves where these predators are present. Grizzly bears prey heavily on calves in the spring in the first month of the lives of calves. After about a month old, calves can usually outrun grizzly bears. Coyotes occasionally will also take calves, and on rare occasions golden eagles have been known to kill a calf. Elk are heavily hunted and many populations are controlled by hunting as a recent Idaho study points to hunter access and intensity, not habitat parameters, as a major factor in population control. A Yellowstone National Park study showed 31% calf mortality during the first 28 days after birth, and in Yellowstone 68% of the total elk mortality is due to predators.
In September and October, during the rut , mature bulls establish harems of up to 30 females. The bulls “bugle” which actually starts with sort of a bellow, then changes to a whistle and ends with a series of grunts. Bugling is common during the rut as the bulls are advertising their presence to their harem , and to other bulls as a challenge. There is some fighting among mature bulls during the rut , and a lot of wallowing, pawing of the ground and conducting much behavior which appears to be “marking” their “territory”, although rutting bulls are not thought of as territorial. Older, dominant males do most of mating, and younger males, although capable, rarely breed with adult females. Females breed at 2 years. Most births (late spring) are single, but twins are common. Calves are about 28 pounds at birth. Females have their young away from the herd, and commonly plant their young, spotted calf, in thick cover while they feed. After a week or two the cow and her calf will join with other females and their calves. Elk calves grow rapidly and can outrun most predators by 3 to 4 weeks of age. Gestation lasts 249 to 262 days. An Idaho study reported that winter herd composition included 16% calves.
Important State References:
Unsworth, J.W., L. Kuck, M.D. Scott, and E.O. Garton. 1993. Elk mortality in the Clearwater drainage of north-central Idaho. J. Wildl. Manage. 57:495-502.