Skip Navigation

Rocky Mountain Elk

Cervus canadensis
Rocky Mountain Elk MG 520x289
The absence of hunting on the refuge until recently concentrated elk on the refuge in the fall and winter making elk viewing a popular activity on the refuge especially in the early and late hours of the day. This large concentration on a relatively small area has also come with some problems. Intense browsing of aspen stands has resulted in a loss of regeneration needed to sustain this important habitat on the refuge. Elk also leave the relative security of the Refuge at night to forage in neighboring alfalfa fields and hay stacks. The refuge staff is working with the State, Eastern Washington University and other partners to study the refuge elk and initiate management that maintains elk, aspen and private forage crops.
Although archaeological evidence suggest that elk may have once been fairly widespread in eastern Washington and were hunted by native Americans residing in the area, the earliest written records of Rocky Mountain elk in eastern Washington exist from the late 1800's for only the Okanogan, Blue Mountains, and Yakima areas. Elk, if historically present in the Refuge area and the forested portions of northeastern Washington, appear to have been eliminated by the time of settlement. Reintroductions in the early 1900's, however, resulted in expanding herds throughout much of the forested portions of eastern Washington. From these reintroductions and subsequent transplants, elk populations increased dramatically in the 40's, 50's and 60's. Rocky Mountain elk were first observed on the Refuge in the late 1950's. Although increasing numbers were observed on the Refuge and in most of southern Spokane County since their first appearance, dramatic increases did not occur until the early 1980's. By the late 1980's, the elk population in the Refuge vicinity was estimated at between 60 to 80 animals, based primarily on incidental observations. As the elk population grew in size so did interest in its management. In 1993, the elk of southern Spokane County were designated the Hangman Creek sub-herd by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and managed as part of the Selkirk Herd of northeastern Washington.
The first aerial survey of this elk population was completed during the spring of 1993. The estimated population size was between 271 and 384 (95 percent confidence interval) with 60 elk observed on the Refuge. Additional aerial surveys were conducted in 1994 and 1995. These surveys indicated a growing population with high productivity. During an aerial survey conducted by the State in 1997 (Meyers 1997), 93 elk were observed on the Refuge and the estimated population for the sub-herd was between 115 and 219 animals (95 percent confidence interval). This population decrease for the entire sub-herd is likely the result of the any-bull strategy and offering either-sex and antlerless hunts with extended seasons for muzzle loaders and Advanced Hunter Education graduates. Since 2004, aerial surveys have been conducted annually with the exception of 2005. Although few data points are available for both the Refuge and its vicinity prior to 2004, it appears that the intensive hunting pressure around the Refuge starting in 1997 initially reduced elk populations in the area, but increased use of the Refuge as a security zone. The sanctuary of the Refuge has resulted in a rebound in the population that now appears to have stabilized at between 300-400 animals.
Because this elk population is well established, three primary issues concerning this population have developed, including impacts to aspen dominated habitats, damage to private lands, and recreational hunting opportunities. Although aspen habitats occur in small amounts relative to other habitats on the Refuge, they are particularly important to a large portion of the wildlife on the Refuge. Elk use and preference for aspen and other deciduous browse is well documented. Under high populations and limited habitat, elk browsing can have a significant negative impact on the regeneration of aspen. In areas of suburban development or intense hunting pressure, elk use of such places like Turnbull NWR - that provide both security cover and forage - increases.

Facts About Rocky Mountain Elk


700 pounds (320 kilograms) and nearly 5 feet at the shoulder


500 pounds (225 kilograms) and  over 4 feet at the shoulder

Inside spread of antlers can reach nearly 4 ft.

Primarily grazers but will browse on aspen, a favorite food

Last Updated: Nov 21, 2012
Return to main navigation