Elk are social animals, living in herds for much of the year. During spring, summer, and winter, elk tend to split into cow–calf herds and bull herds. During the mating season (rut) in early fall, adult and subadult bulls find and temporarily join cow herds. The larger, more aggressive bulls try to gather harems of cows, which they defend against competing bulls. Harems range in size from 3 to 4 cows to as many as 20 to 25 cows. Bulls socially dominate the cows within their harems, but the movements of these breeding groups are still determined by older, lead cows.
Like other members of the deer family, the antlers of bull elk grow during spring and summer beneath a hairy skin covering known as velvet. In late summer the velvet dries and falls off to reveal the bonelike structure of the fully-grown antlers. Elk shed their antlers beginning in late February for the largest males, extending to late April and even early May for younger ones. New antler growth begins soon after shedding.
Elk range in color from light brown in winter to reddish tan in summer, and have characteristic buff colored rumps. In winter, a dark brown, shaggy mane hangs from the neck to the chest. Bull elk have large, spreading antlers.
up to 6.5 feet (1.9m) long for females and 8 feet (2.4m) for bulls); cows be measure 4.5 feet (1.3m) tall at the sholder and bulls can be 5 feet (1.5m) tall at the shoulder
cows up to 600 pounds (272 kg), bulls up to 900 pounds (408 kg)
Elk live in a variety of habitats, from rainforests to alpine meadows and dry desert valleys to hardwood forests.
These large animals are herbivores, eating only plants. In spring and summer, when food is plentiful, elk are mainly grazers—eating grasses, sedges, and a variety of flowering plants. In fall, elk increasingly become browsers, feeding on sprouts and branches of shrubs and trees, including conifers as a last resort when snow covers other plants. During fall and winter, elk continue to eat grasses when these are available and not covered by deep snow. Like deer and moose, elk are ruminants. They initially chew their food just enough to swallow it. This food is stored in a stomach called the “rumen.” From there, the food is regurgitated, then re-chewed before being swallowed again, entering a second stomach where digestion begins. Then it passes into third and fourth stomachs before finally entering the intestine.
SIGNS OF PRESENCE:
Elk are the loudest of the deer family so the most obvious sign of their presence is hearing males bugle during rut season in the fall. Aside from audible cues that elk are nearby, the next most obvious signs include scat (piles of droppings), feeding areas (areas where the elk have used their hooves to uncover food under snow or debris), tracks and prints, velvet rubs (in the fall, rubbing the velvet from their horns can leave “streamers” of the velvet hanging in branches), and wallow sites. Probably the most easily identified elk sign is the mud wallow scented with urine and droppings. Bull elk roll in wallows to cover their bodies with scent, creating bathtub-size depressions with low walls of displaced mud ringing their perimeters. Receptive cow elk, drawn by the odor, will also roll and urinate in the wallow, indicating their willingness to mate. Elk that use these wallows may become so foul smelling that, when downwind, humans can easily detect their presence.
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Dept.
National Park Service
International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources
Paul Tarwell, “Camping & Wilderness Survival Second Edition” (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Paul Tarwell, 2006).
Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife
World Worldlife Federation