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Rocky Mountain Elk of Greater Yellowstone

A bull elk under a full moon in Yellowstone National Park

A bull elk under a full moon in Yellowstone National Park

If the grizzly and wolf are the iconic heart of Greater Yellowstone’s wilderness, I believe Yellowstone’s elk are the soul. The majestic bulls of fall bugling, struting, and fighting for harems of cows surely is one of the greatest shows in nature. Greater Yellowstone’s great elk herds certainly are an integral essence that creates the ambience of our wilderness.

Elk were named by the early settlers, but some prefer to call elk by the Shawnee name wapiti (WAA-pi-tea) meaning “white rump.” The name “elk” is a bit confusing because in Europe, moose are called “elk.” and the European “red deer” is the same as the North American elk, which muddies the water even further. Evidently, the same naming scheme that called for the American bison to be called a buffalo.

Elk were valued by the early settlers and Native Americans as a valuable food source, hides and fur for clothing, and antlers for utensils and trophies. Today, elk are economically valuable for hunting and tourism they bring to the mountains of the west.

A bull elk in his spring velvet pauses from his browsing to look at the full moon (Daryl L. Hunter)

A bull elk in his spring velvet pauses from his browsing to look at the full moon

At the turn of the century, commercial game hunters, hired riflemen, and subsistence hunters had killed off most of the elk in the west. In 1910, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that fewer than 1,000 elk remained in Colorado. A 1,918 survey of Forest Service lands in Idaho showed only 610 elk remained. They were decimated around Yellowstone as well. The winters of  1897, 1909, and 1911 all coinciding with the loss of their traditional wintering grounds to cattle ranching were also very tough on them. About 10,000 elk starved in Jackson Hole during the winter of 1897, 15 years before Jackson Hole became the home of the National Elk Refuge.  From a total elk population of 41,000 in 1907, elk on U.S. ranges have now come to number nearly a million. These foreword thinking programs have paid off nicely. Where elk became protected, these prolific animals rebounded quickly.

Elk belong to a group of animals called ungulates, the Latin word for “hoof.” All ungulates have hooves. Elk are second in size only to the moose in the deer family. At birth, an elk calf weighs about 35 pounds. At the start of its first winter, an elk may weigh five times as much as when it was born. The average weight of an adult bull is 650 pounds, and some individuals attain weights of 1,100 pounds.  Cows and calves mew to each other. Adult elk often bark warnings when they sense an intruder just outside their comfort zone.

Wolf chasing elk, Yellowstone National Park

Wolf chasing elk, Yellowstone National Park. Elk are the primary food source of Yellowstone's wolves.

Elk being herd animals have eyes are on the sides of the skull, this enables them to see what is happening ahead of them, beside them, as well as what is going on behind them. This is the reason they used to put blinders on horses (a herd animal) so they could only see where they were going without the distractions of what was beside them and behind them. An elk’s big ears can capture faint sounds and other sounds of movement. Elk also have a keen sense of smell. Combine the sharp senses of a group of five, 10, or even 50 elk and it’s easy to understand how they avoid predators.

Elk that live in mountainous country like Yellowstone migrate to lower elevations where foraging is possible. In the spring, as the snow retreats the elk follow the snow line up the mountains because the higher elevations provide remoteness and fewer insects. Elk are social animals and during the summer they live in large herds. A single cow will dominate a herd. In spring the bulls and cows separate, and the females leave to calve, while bulls form their own separate herds for the until fall.

Prancing Bull Elk, Sunrise, Grand Teton National Park

Prancing Bull Elk, Sunrise, Grand Teton National Park

Elk being herbivores eat only plants. Their diet includes grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees. Being herd animals they must eat and watch for predators simultaneously. An elk herd always has at least one animal looking up while the others are eating. Even so the animals that are feeding are always on the lookout for warning signs of predators.

Bull elk have antlers that can span five feet and have six sharp points or “tines.” per side upon maturity but a few have as many as 10. The width breadth and weight of an elk’s rack is determined by the abundance of food as well as age, bull elk shed their antlers in late winter. Testosterone is the hormone in the bull’s body controlling the cement that holds the antlers to his skull. In winter, a bull’s testosterone level drops and so do his antlers. Increasing daylight later in spring elevates testosterone in the animal’s blood, which triggers the growth of antlers. The antlers grow from the bony bumps on their skulls called pedicles. Antlers are cartilage that slowly mineralize into bone. A soft covering called velvet carries blood to the growing bone tissue and helps protect them. Antlers are fragile until they completely mineralize and harden in time for ruting season.

Elk herd in the Grand Tetons

Elk herd in the Grand Tetons

September brings ruting season (mating season), the larger bulls form harems of cows, which they defend with their seasonally aggressive nature, One bull may have a herd of fifteen to thirty cows, but some may have achieved as many as sixty. During the rut, the bull elk engage one on one battles for available cows, they bugle, they wallow in the mud holes they have scented with their urine, and they urinate on plants that they toss onto their antlers. It is thought that this activity makes the bulls more fearsome to other bulls and more attractive to the cows.

Bull elk make a sound called a bugle, a true sound of the wilderness that starts as a bellow, changes to a loud whistle, and ends in a series of grunts. The bugling serves to challenge to other bulls and to attract the cow elk. This timeless wilderness show can be seen in the meadows of Yellowstone and other places where there is no hunting pressure, where elk are hunted they are unapproachable and are often hiding in the safety of the deep forest. Some bugle a lot, others infrequently. Besides bugling, you’ll hear chirps, grunts, gurgles, and squeals. Bulls are only territorial during the mating season and are otherwise, not aggressive to other elk.

The elk rut in the fall I believe is one of the best shows in nature and it is great fun to photograph them this time of year.

Elk Rut Video

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