Rocky Mountain Elk

Cervus canadensis nelsoni
Elk 2

The elk or wapiti (Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest species of the deer family in the world, and one of the largest land mammals in North America and eastern Asia. Only the moose is larger.

Elk are often found in the refuge along the forest edge grazing in the meadows, resting in the forest, or in the meadows north of South Valley Road.

Elk are ruminants having four-chambered stomachs. Unlike the white-tailed deer and moose, which are primarily browsers, elk have a similarity to cattle as they are primarily grazers, but like other deer, they also browse. Elk have a tendency to do most of their feeding in the mornings and evenings, seeking sheltered areas in between feedings to digest. Their diets vary somewhat depending upon the season with native grasses being a year round supplement, tree bark being consumed in winter and forbs and tree sprouts consumed during the summer. Elk consume an average of 20 lb of various vegetation daily.

During the mating season in the fall, rival bulls challenge opponents by bellowing and by paralleling each other, walking back and forth. This allows potential rivals to assess each others antlers, body size and fighting abilities. If neither bull backs down, they can begin antler wrestling, and bulls sometimes sustain serious injuries during these fights.

Females are available for mating during only 1 to 2 days in a year. There are usually several mating attempts during the rutting season. Females are in gestation for 8 to 9 months, and then go off by themselves away from the herd just prior to birth in order to protect their calves from danger. They usually only have one calf, but it is possible for them to have twins.

Elk generally live from 10 to 13 years in the wild. The main predators of elk are packs of coyote or wolf, as well as a solitary cougar. Bears are also known to prey on elk. Of course during the hunting season in the refuge, humans are important predators.

Only the male elk grow antlers. Male elk retain their antlers for more than 6 months and are more likely to graze alone when they have their antlers intact. Antlers provide a means of defense, as does a strong front-leg kick, which is performed by either sex if provoked. Once the antlers have been lost, the bulls tend to form all-male groups which allow them to work together at fending off predators. The largest antlers may be 3.9 ft long and weigh 40 lb. Antlers are made of bone which can grow at a rate of almost an inch per day. While actively growing, the antlers are covered with and protected by a soft layer of highly vascularised skin known as velvet. The velvet is shed in the summer when the antlers have fully developed. Bull elk may have eight or more tines on each antler; however, the number of tines has little to do with the age or maturity of a particular animal.

As is true for many species of deer, especially those in mountainous regions, elk migrate into areas of higher altitude in the spring, following the melting snows, and then in the opposite direction in the fall. Hunting pressure also impacts migration and movements. Elk tend to find areas in the refuge that are free from hunting. During the winter, they favor wooded areas and sheltered valleys for protection from the wind and availability of tree bark to eat.

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Facts About Rocky Mountain Elk

Diet: Herbivore (grazers) 


 Cows 500 to 530 lb, 4.3 feet at the shoulder, 6.9 feet tail to nose. 

 Bulls 710 to 730 lb, 4.9 feet at the shoulder, 8.0 feet tail to nose. 

Social: Single-sex groups except during rutting season.

Lifespan: 10 to 13 years in the wild; up to 20 years in captivity.