One of the largest land mammals in North America, elk primarily live in the western United States. They are one of the most popular big game animals in the West, and they have been successfully reintroduced to historical areas of the East.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Artiodactyla
Suborder - Ruminantia
Family - Cervidae
Subfamily - Cervinae
Genus - Cervus
Species - C. elaphus
Common Names - Elk, Wapiti (meaning light-colored animal, Native American name). North American Elk are subdivided into six subspecies: Tule, Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt's, Manitoban, Merriam's and Eastern Elk. The Merriam's and Eastern Elk are both extinct.
Elk are the second largest animal in the deer family after the moose. Bull elk can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, and females are usually around 400 pounds. They grow to about 4 feet tall at the shoulder and are 8 feet from nose to tail. Adult male elk grow a massive pair of antlers each year, but females do not have antlers. In winter, males shed their antlers. Elk are usually dark brown in winter and tan in the summer. Their rumps display a light, buff-colored area.
At 16 months of age, elk are sexually mature, although young males may not breed until they are older and better able to fight with mature bull elk. In the fall mating season, territorial bull elk form harems of females, fighting other males with their antlers for dominance. The harems are typically made up of one male, six females, and the yearling calves. After fall mating, females give birth after an eight- to nine-month gestation period. Females only give birth to one calf; twins are extremely rare. In three months, the calf is weaned.
Elk are extremely social animals, living together in large herds that may contain up to 400 animals, except in mating season. In warmer months, elk migrate to higher elevations, and in cooler months, they prefer the lowlands. They like open woodlands, especially hardwood forests. They are ruminants, meaning they eat grasses and forbs and chew their cud to completely digest this fibrous matter.
Before Europeans came to North America, vast herds of elk occupied every part of the continent. Scientists believe that more than 10 million elk used to graze across the continent. Because of hunting and habitat restriction, they left the East and took refuge in mountainous, secluded areas.
Currently, about 1 million elk live in North America. They have lived in the West for quite awhile, and in recent years, wildlife management have successfully reintroduced elk to Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina, among other states. Although elk will never have the population numbers that they did in the past, they are doing well and are not endangered.