Rocky Mountain Elk

Rocky Mountain Elk

Elk are relatively recent immigrants to North America, at least in geological terms. Elk migrated to North America over the Bering Land Bridge approximately 120,000 years ago under a period when much of the world's water was locked in glaciers.

There were six subspecies of elk in North America—Eastern, Manitoba, Merriam's, Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt and Tule. However, the Eastern and Merriam's elk have both been extinct for at least a century. Rocky Mountain elk are native to the Columbia Basin; the elk on Cold Springs National Wildlife Refuge are Rocky Mountain elk.

Prior to the 1800s, elk lived in every state and province except Alaska and Florida. Today, their range has been reduced to 24 states and seven provinces. Approximately one million elk live in North America today—10% of the population before European settlement. Oregon has the fifth largest state elk population, with approximately 125,000 elk (Rocky Mountain at 65,000 and Roosevelt elk at 60,000).

Elk are amazingly adaptable and can live almost anywhere—forests, deserts, mountains, and plains. They eat a wide variety of plants. Their typical diet consists of grasses (year-round), woody plants (winter) and forbs (summer).

Elk are majestic animals. Cows typically weigh no more than 500 pounds, but bulls can reach 700 pounds and stand 5 feet at the shoulder. Only bull (male) elk grow antlers. Grown annually to display dominance for breeding, a pair of antlers can weigh up to 40 pounds.

Elk mate in autumn. Calves are born 8-1/2 months later, from mid-May through early June, depending on location. Newborn calves weigh 35 pounds, and although newborn calves can walk with their mothers within a couple of days of birth, they usually stay hidden for the first couple of weeks of life. Newborn calves have almost no scent to avoid attracting predators as they lay hidden in thick brush or tall grass; white spots help to camouflage the calf by breaking up its outline and mimicking spots of light.

Elk are often known as "wapiti" (wäp i tee), a Shawnee Indian word meaning "white rump." Elk were/are important to many tribes for food, medicine and clothing.

Want to learn about the history of elk in Oregon? Read on.

Rocky Mountain Elk


History of Elk in Oregon


Historic records indicate both subspecies of elk were numerous and widely distributed in Oregon prior to arrival of non-native settlers. According to Vernon Bailey in his "The Mammals and Life Zones of Oregon" (1936), Rocky Mountain elk occupied the whole of the Blue Mountain Plateau in Northeastern Oregon. There are records of elk being plentiful in the Enterprise area in the Wallowa Mountains, and sightings and remains are reported from the Burns area and the John Day River. Bailey reported seeing old elk antlers at ranches throughout the Blue Mountains in 1895-96 and was told there were still a few elk in the wildest parts of the Blue Mountains. Roosevelt elk were apparently abundant in much of Western Oregon in the early 1800s. The Lewis and Clark expedition heavily depended on elk for survival during the winter of 1805-06 at the mouth of the Columbia River. Numerous other historical reports indicate elk were plentiful throughout most of Western Oregon, although less so on the extreme southern coast and in the Siskiyou and south Cascade mountains.

Settlers hunted elk as a primary source of meat and harvest was unregulated. During the latter half of the 19th century 'market hunting' and human encroachment on elk range took a heavy toll on Oregon’s elk populations. Market hunters killed thousands of elk for meat, hides and antlers. These products were sold in population centers in Oregon and shipped throughout the nation.

Reports of elk scarcity became common during the late 1880s. Elk populations were reduced to only a few small herds along the coast, in the Cascades and in northeast Oregon, and populations reached their lowest ebb by about 1910. The Oregon Legislature provided protection for elk in 1899 by making it illegal to sell meat from wild animals and by closing elk hunting from 1909 through 1932.

Concern for the future of elk continued after the hunting season was closed. Early conservation efforts concentrated on restocking, and 15 elk from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were released in an enclosure at Billy Meadows in Wallowa County on March 19, 1912. A second introduction of 15 elk to Billy Meadows from Jackson Hole was made in 1913. Elk from Billy Meadows were subsequently transplanted to other areas in Oregon. The first transplant occurred in 1917, when 15 elk were moved to Crater Lake National Park.

The scale of transplanting in the early 1900s was limited and alone does not account for the rapid increases in elk numbers and distribution. Recovery of elk in Oregon and elk expansion into much of their original range is largely the result of total protection of local remnant populations. By 1922, elk numbers had increased greatly in Umatilla, Baker, Union, Grant, Wallowa, Clatsop and Tillamook Counties, but authorities did not consider it possible to re-establish elk as a game animal at that time. However, by 1924 there were numerous complaints about competition between elk and domestic livestock. Elk hunting was re-established in eastern Oregon in 1933 and in western Oregon in 1938. Both subspecies of elk continue to increase in numbers and expand their range in several areas. However, elk numbers have stabilized in some areas after the adoption of management objectives in 1994 and have declined in some Northeast Oregon WMUs. Elk continue to expand their range and numbers in the Siskiyou, Coast, Cascade and Ochoco Mountains and in the desert area of southeastern and south-central Oregon.

(Reprinted from Oregon's Elk Management Plan (February 2003))