Cervus canadensis
elk in winter


Elk once outnumbered bison in Iowa, but were hunted so heavily that they disappeared from the state by 1870. Although they are common in other parts of the country, free-roaming elk are not found in Iowa.

Elk are more active when it is cooler, so you are more likely to see them in late fall, winter, and early spring, when temperatures are lower. During hot summer days, they can sometimes be seen in the early morning or late evening hours. From September through November, you may be lucky enough to hear the bugling of bull elk as they court females. A dominant bull will guard his harem from other bulls, and bulls fight sometimes to the death in an attempt to pass on their genes. Non-breeding elk bulls will hang out in small groups for most of the year, similarly to bison. Calves usually arrive from May to August, but are rarely seen while they are small. Typically, there are two to five elk calves born each year at Neal Smith NWR, with twins being common.

The antlers of the bulls (cows do not have antlers) will shed starting around the beginning of April. The new antlers begin to grown in spring, covered with velvet, which provides blood to the growing antlers. Antlers can grow one inch a day in the summer. By the time the rut begins again, the velvet will have shed and the antlers will be hard and strong, made of solid bone.


Management of elk

The refuge limits the elk population to 15 to 20 in order to protect the prairie from overgrazing. We treat the elk as wildlife as much as possible, rather than like livestock. There are limitations to this, since the elk are confined within the fence and have no natural predators here. The herd is monitored for health issues through observation and tissue sampling of dead animals.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a contagious neurological disease that affects ungulates including deer and elk. It is spreading throughout the country and has recently been found in northeastern Iowa. Because this disease is a serious concern and is transmitted through contact with infected animals, elk are not moved into or out of the enclosure.


Why do we need elk on the prairie?

Like the bison, the elk are here to help restore the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. The elk at Neal Smith NWR share the same fenced 800-acre area with the bison. Elk, like bison, eat mostly grass, along with small amounts of forbs (wildflowers). Elk also browse on trees and shrubs, although not to the extent that deer do. Their grazing and browsing behaviors help to promote the growth of prairie plants and control the growth of trees and shrubs.

Facts About Elk



Average Lifespan

15 years


Cow (female) 500 lbs. 4'6" tall at shoulder, 6'6" long nose to tail

Bull (male) 700 lbs.  5' tall at shoulder, 8' long nose to tail