(Cervus elaphus)

Elk are a member of the deer family. Native American Shawnee first called them "Wapita" meaning white or pale deer, probably referring to their light colored rump. Later, scientists adopted the same name. The name "elk" was given to the large deer by early English colonists, ignoring the fact that the name had long been used for the European moose.
Elk were once found throughout most of the United States and southern Canada. By the mid-twentieth century, hunters had killed so many that they survived only in the region west of the Rocky Mountains. Successful conservation and reintroduction efforts have brought elk back to several regions.  
Size: Adults reach a shoulder height of 4 to 5 feet, and a length up to 9 feet or more, with a body thickness of about 6 inches. Adult bull elk may weigh more than 1,000 lbs. before the rut, but seldom exceed 900 lbs. Smaller cows usually weigh 500 to 600 lbs.
Characteristics: An elk's body can range from a pale gray to tan and brown; brown or tan above and darker underneath. Elk have slender legs and a thick neck. Their legs, head, and thick neck fur are a darker brown. Their rump patch and very short tail are a light tan color. An elk calf is light tawny-brown with white spots that are lost during their first change of coat in August. 
Food: Elk feed on all kinds of plants, but are primarily grazers of grasses. They also eat the sedges, forbs, twigs, needles of fir and juniper, many young hardwood trees (such as chokeberry and aspen), and deciduous shrubs (willow and serviceberry), especially during the winter.
Gender: Adult male elks, called bulls, have a dark brown mane or ruff on their throats. Their huge antlers can weigh 25 lbs. (older bulls). The antlers may reach 5 feet in length and usually have five tines projecting from the main branch for a total of six points per side. The antlers are shed in late winter (March or April). About one week afterwards, males begin to grow new ones. The new antlers are covered with 'velvet.' Females, called cows, do not have antlers, have shorter manes and are 25% smaller than bull elk.
Habitat: In the spring, after calves are born, elk move slowly back up to higher mountain pastures. As mating season begins, the elk move from the high mountain valleys called parks to the lower valleys. There they gather into large herds of both sexes and all ages. They spend the winter in the wooded slopes and often dense woods of the lower valleys, where the snow is not too deep.
Herding: Elk cows have a strong herding instinct. During spring and summer, herds of cows and their juvenile calves usually graze separately from the bulls. An old cow usually leads this summer herd. As yearling (spike) bulls age, they spend less time with the cow herds. During winter, males and females forage together.
Locomotion: Bull elk can move silently through forests at speeds up to 35 mph. Both bulls and cows are strong swimmers. Their walking stride is 30 to 60 inches, but when running this length can increase to 14 feet. When walking, their hind hoof prints fall slightly ahead of and overlap their fore prints. When bounding their hind prints and fore prints are separate. In mud or snow, the print of "dew claws" are often visible behind their lobed main prints. 
Reproduction: A bull elk announces the rut, or mating season (Sept. - Oct.), by bugling. He begins with a low bellow followed by his far-reaching whistle. During the fall rutting (mating) season, bulls rub their antlers on trees, "horn" the ground, and then roll in the created wallows. Rival bull elk battle clash their antler racks in jousting matches for possession of a female harem (cows). A bull may mate with as many as 60 cows, but the average harem contains only a dozen or so cows at a time.
Cows usually breed when they are 2 1/2 years old. After the fall mating season, the gestation period for the cows is 255 to 275 days. Usually one or occasionally two calves are born in June-July and weigh 25 to 40 lbs. During the first month, calves are totally dependent on milk and may suckle for up to 9 months.
Range: Elk are mainly found in western North America. In the U.S. the largest numbers are in Colorado, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming with lesser populations in California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Elk have been recently reintroduced into many areas in the East, Midwest, and the South including parts of Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Virginia. The largest herds are still found in Yellowstone Park, on Montana's Sun River, and in Washington's Olympic Mountains.
Predators: Natural enemies of elk include wolves and cougars. Bears and coyotes kill some calves and sick adults.
Threats: Many of the larger elk herds in the U.S. and Canada are overpopulated and do not have an adequate winter range for feeding. Elk die of starvation or from diseases, such as pneumonia and necrotic stomatitis (calf diphtheria).
More Information

Here are a few more websites devoted to elk.

Elk by Stu Keck
This extensive site contains a wealth of information about elk and their habits and links to two other good articles on elk by the author.
Factoids: Born to be Big (Environmental News Network)
Learn facts about the location, behavior, diet, and physical characteristics of these large members of the deer family.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF)
Website of the international wildlife conservation organization whose mission is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, and their habitat. Includes lots of elk facts.

Try a webquest activity.

Note: All photographs taken with a digital camera in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (May-June 1999) and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (July 1999).
Developed by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 04/02.