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of the Elk
Natural History Facts
Beyond The Pine Ridge
Elk Natural History Facts
Photos and text by Eric Fowler
Published in NEBRASKAland Magazine, October 2010
Origin: Elk are even-toed ungulates (hooved mammals) of the
deer family (cervidae), along with white-tailed and mule deer,
moose and caribou. North America “elk” (the name elk properly
belongs to the European moose) are closely related to red deer
of Europe and Asia, and are believed to have crossed the Bering
Land Bridge between Siberia and Alaska 120,000 years ago. Elk
are also referred to as wapiti, a Shawnee name for “white rump.”
Subspecies/range: Six subspecies of elk, numbering perhaps
10 million, once roamed throughout most of the United States
and parts of Canada and Mexico. Today four remaining subspecies
number an estimated one million elk. The Rocky Mountain elk
was found from the mountain west to unknown points to the east,
possibly overlapping with the now-extinct Eastern subspecies.
It is still found thorughout the west and has been transplanted
in several eastern states as well. Of the other subspecies,
Roosevelt elk are found on the Pacific Coast, tule elk in central
California, and Manitoban elk in the northern Great Plains.
Size: As adults, cows measure 4½ feet at the shoulder and
6½ feet from nose to rump. Bulls are 5 feet at the shoulder
and 8 feet long. Calves weigh about 35 pounds at birth. Cow
elk can weigh more than 500 pounds, and bulls average 700 pounds.
Diet: Elk are primarily grazers that feed on grass, but they
sometimes browse trees and shrubs and will even nibble aspen
bark in the high-country. In Nebraska and other agricultural
states, elk will also eat corn, wheat, alfalfa and other crops.
Antlers: Starting in their second year, bull elk grow and
shed antlers annually. The antlers grow from pedicles on their
skull in the spring. Beneath a layer of velvet, layer upon
layer of cartilage that mineralizes into bone is added at a
rate of one inch per day, growing faster than any other kind
of bone. When the growth stops in August, the velvet is shed.
In their second year, bulls grow spikes that are 10 to 20 inches
long. Later sets produce tines that branch from the main beams.
By its seventh summer, a bull typically has six points per
side on antlers that can measure 4 feet in length and weigh
40 pounds each. During the breeding season, which in Nebraska
begins in mid-September and stretches into or through October,
bull elk use their antlers to fight for breeding rights and
protect their harem. The biggest bulls with the biggest antlers
typically win these battles, which are often bloody and sometimes
The Language: Bulls let out eerie, high-pitched bugles to
advertise their presence to rival bulls and potential mates
during the fall rut. Cows bark to warn others of danger and
mew to keep track of each other.
Breeding Age: Unlike white-tailed deer, which sometimes breed
in their first fall and often have twins, cow elk usually don’t
breed until they are 2½ years old and in most cases have only
one calf. In late-May or early June, following approximately
8½ months of gestation, cows separate from the herd to have
their spotted, scentless calves in isolated areas. Calves join
the herd about two weeks after birth.
Lifespan: Elk can live 20 years in captivity, but typically
live 10 to 15 years in the wild.
Conservation Partners: The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has
helped protect and enhance 5.8 million acres of elk habitat
since it formed in 1984, including several Nebraska projects,
where it has also been a partner in elk research. Information
in this sidebar came from their web site at RMEF.org, which
contains many more facts and details about elk conservation
issues, hunting tips and news.