Like the white-tailed deer, the North American Elk (also known as the Wapiti) is a cervid. In fact, it’s the second-largest species in the deer family, making it an impressive animal. The North American elk may weigh as much as 1100 pounds. Keep reading to learn everything you want to know about the North American Elk.
In today’s article we’ll learn a bit about the history of this deer species, explore the size of Elk, its appearance, relevant Elk sub-species, its preferred habitats, unique features, and much more.
Brief History of the Elk
North America was home to as many as 10 million Wapiti before Europeans arrived. These large deer played a significant role in Native American lives and Native culture for thousands of years.
As it’s a remarkably adaptable creature, the elk successfully lived in a wide range of ecosystems.
The formal name for Elk, Wapiti, comes from a Cree and Shawnee word. Native Americans hunted these animals for their meat and hides, which they used for making clothing and blankets.
These animals came under serious threat after Europeans arrived and settled across the West. Explorers and settlers destroyed important habitat for these deer, and their hunting methods quickly proved to be unsustainable for the population.
The situation got so bad that the species disappeared from all parts of the United States to the east of the Mississippi River.
By the time the turn of the 20th century arrived, population numbers in the United States has fallen to lower than 50,000.
President Teddy Roosevelt played a major role in bringing attention to the plight of this species. His leadership and activism resulted in new hunting laws and regulations, which helped to preserve this species.
As you may already know, Elk are enormous animals. The only larger cervid is the moose.
Let’s learn about average weight and measurements for these animals in the summary below so you can understand how elk compare to other deer:
Size of Male Elk (Bulls)
Male elk are called bulls and the typical size of a bull follows:
- Avg. Body Length – 8 feet (2.4 meters)
- Avg. Shoulder Height – 5 feet (1.5 meters)
- Avg. Weight – 700 pounds (315 kgs)
Size of Female Elk (Cows)
Female elk are called cows, and the typical size of a cow follows:
- Avg. Body Length – 6.5 feet (2 meters)
- Avg. Shoulder Height – 4.5 feet (1.3 meters)
- Avg. Weight – 500 pounds (225 kgs)
It should be noted that the average measurements vary by subspecies.
For example, the average weight for bulls and cows in the Roosevelt subspecies is 900 and 600 pounds respectively.
For the much smaller Tule subspecies, the average bull weight is about 400 pounds, while cows tend to weigh approximately 300 pounds.
Let’s explore the appearance of North American elk (Cervus elaphus).
Coat and Color
Elk have a reddish-brown or copper brown coat in the summer months. The coat is tan during the winter and spring, as well as the fall.
There is also a patch of light beige on the animal’s rump. The belly, legs, neck, and head tend to be dark brown.
The area covering the neck down to the chest develops a dark mane for the winter months. The rump area of the elk’s body is a lighter color, and the tail is a light shade of tan. Sometimes it’s a straw shade.
Size and Weight
As we outlined earlier, there are size differences between male (bull) and female (cow) North American elk.
The average bull weight is 700 pounds. A male’s height at the shoulder is as high as 5 feet.
Its length stretching from its nose to its tail is generally around 8 feet. This animal’s antlers are large and make for an even more impressive appearance.
By contrast, females have an average weight of 500 pounds.
Their height at the shoulder is usually around 4 ½ feet. The average length from its nose to its tail is 6 ½ feet.
Only bulls grow antlers, and their antlers are enormous. In some cases, they reach a length of 4 feet.
Elk antlers may weigh more than 40 pounds. The animal will lose and regrow its antlers every year.
They grow extremely quickly whenever they regenerate. In fact, daily growth may be as much as one inch.
Each antler may develop seven or even eight points.
Wapiti have short tails. This is true for both bulls and cows.
Cervus Elaphus Subspecies of Note
There are six different North American elk subspecies, but two of these are extinct. They are:
- Rocky Mountain,
- Merriam’s, and
The extinct subspecies are the Merriam’s (which used to live in Mexico and the Southwestern United States) and Eastern (which lived in the eastern part of Mississippi).
North American subspecies we still have today include:
Manitoban elk (Cervus canadensis manitobensis) live on the northern Great Plains.
They live in southern parts of the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, as well as North Dakota and other parts of the Midwest in the United States.
Rocky Mountain elk were originally found only in the Rocky Mountain West, but since then they have been brought to other areas. The Rocky Mountain subspecies has larger antlers than any of the others.
This type of elk usually has a relatively light coat color. The Rocky Mountain Wapiti has a wider neck than the Roosevelt subspecies.
The Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) is found in central California. In fact, California is the sole location where this cervid lives.
This subspecies has a smaller body size than any of the others.
The Roosevelt subspecies has a larger body size than the other subspecies.
Cervus canadensis Roosevelt is found in several places including northern California and southeast Alaska. In Canada, it’s found in British Columbia.
Roosevelt elk tend to live in temperate rainforest environments.
Where Do Elk Live?
North American elk primarily live in western parts of the United States and Canada.
Populations begin in the Eastern Rockies and continue through to New Mexico.
Wapiti also live on Michigan’s northern lower peninsula.
Distribution and Range
As of 2011, Wapiti were known to live in both the United States and Canada. Below are the specific states and provinces.
United States: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
Canada: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Yukon.
In the United States, the states with the highest elk population numbers include:
- Montana: 170,000
- Idaho: 120,000
- Wyoming: 110,200
- Utah: 81,000
- Washington: 60,000
- Arizona: 35,000
The elk’s favorite type of habitat is woodlands. This is an adaptable animal, however, and it can also thrive in mountainous areas, coniferous-hardwood forests, aspen-hardwood forests, coniferous swamps, and clear cuts.
When it comes to foraging for food, elk herds tend to focus on open fields of grass. They often feed in the late afternoon and early morning.
After they have done eating, they will go back into areas with better cover, such as dense woodland.
The Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt subspecies take part in seasonal migration. Each year, these animals travel long distances to reach meadows and forests in mountainous regions.
What do Elk Need?
Elk need the correct environments and foods for their diet. In the summer, their primary food needs include continued access to forbs and grasses for their food sources.
During the fall and spring, grasses form the bulk of an elk’s diet. When the winter arrives, deer need access to twigs, tree bark, grasses, and shrubs to eat.
Of course, they also need a consistent supply of water.
Some of the water sources these cervids use include streams, rivers, springs, ponds in wetlands, and lakes.
Like other prey animals, elk require access to places with cover, to help them hide from predators.
Elk are strong and powerful animals, and they’re able to handle challenging weather and climate conditions. That is why they can live and thrive in northern areas with severe winters.
These animals will move from area to area to cope with difficult weather conditions, such as snowstorms. If snowfall is too heavy, Wapiti will travel to places with less snow on the ground to seek favorable winter bedding areas.
Elk in the wild may live as long as 10 to 13 years. In many cases, however, elk will live much shorter lives. They may not have enough food to eat, be killed by hunters, or succumb to illness.
There is the possibility of a much longer life if an elk lives in captivity. In fact, this animal may live as long as 25 years in ideal captive conditions.
Female Elk live longer than males on average.
Elk Mating Habits & Reproduction
Elk mate each year during the breeding season in the fall. This is called the rut.
Males will have grown back their antlers by this time of year, and they use these to compete with other males for territorial dominance.
Mature male elks between 5 and 11 years old tend to gather harems of females.
Bull Elk make a bugling noise when they want to show dominance and a willingness to fight. This noise resembles whistling and is quite high-pitched.
Bulls try to avoid fighting if possible, but they are willing to enter a physical contest if necessary.
The female estrus cycle is quite short, with a one or two-day duration. Once a bull has mated with a receptive female, the gestation of calves takes from 240 to 262 days.
Females usually give birth to their young between late May and early June. After a calf is born, it will behave extremely cautiously for a few weeks.
Calves will hide as much as possible near their mother, avoiding movement that may attract attention.
How Elk Give Birth to their Calves
An elk cow may take several different positions when birthing its young. It may stand or lie down, and it will change its stance for comfort.
The average calf weight at birth ranges from 33 to 35 pounds. In most cases, only one calf will be born.
It is possible, though, for two calves to be born. Cows separate from the rest of the herd when it’s about to give birth.
Interesting and Notable Elk Facts
This species of deer is fascinating, with quite a few unique characteristics. Take a look at some of these below.
The elk’s smooth and rounded “eye” teeth are their upper canines. They aren’t just regular deer teeth: they are vestigial tusks.
In other words, they’re the remnants of what were once tusks in ancient Wapiti ancestors.
Today, they don’t appear to have a purpose.
Unfortunately, humans once frequently killed elk specifically for these teeth. This was because the demand for using these teeth in jewelry-making became unsustainable.
Poaching was a serious threat to the species in the 19th century.
Ability to Interbreed with Red Deer
These animals are related closely enough to Red Deer that they can reproduce (despite the fact that red deer are significantly smaller).
These deer species don’t share the same ranges, so it is unlikely to happen in the wild, but exotic hunting ranches will sometimes crossbreed species of deer to create more exotic looking trophies for their hunting guests.
Most ungulates, including deer, aren’t particularly vocal. Elk are different.
These animals use a variety of vocalizations to communicate with other members of the herd, sometimes almost constantly.
Noises they make include squeals, grunts, and more.
The rounded shape of elk hooves makes them different from the hooves of other cervids. They have some shape similarities to yearling cattle hooves.
Sometimes this causes confusion in tracking and hunting.
Enthusiasm for Cold Temperatures
Remember, elk are built to deal with the winter. In fact, they love cold weather and thrive in the snow.
Cold temperatures tend to make these animals livelier and more interested in their surroundings. And these cervids have absolutely no objection to sitting and relaxing in the snow.
Longer Lifespan than Other Cervids
As we touched on earlier, Wapiti are one of the longest-lived types of deer in the world. This applies both in the wild and in captivity. Elk may live as long as 26.8 years.
Impressive Running Speed
Elk show impressive speeds. If they need to, they may run as fast as 45 miles per hour.
To understand just how fast this is, consider the maximum horse speed ever recorded was almost 44 miles per hour. These deer can only keep up their maximum speed for relatively short durations, but it’s still impressive (and surprising to many people).
They aren’t the fastest deer species, but they’re right up there.
Occasionally Omnivorous Eating Habits
This surprises many people because deer are so well-known as herbivores. But if the circumstances demand it, elk may eat small amounts of meat.
For example, elk may eat bird’s nest contents if they feel they need the nutrition it contains.
In some cases, they even eat nests just because they’re easy to find and nutrient-rich.
Extraordinary Jumping Ability
Despite their large size, these animals are able to make impressive jumps both horizontally and vertically. Even vertically, they can jump up to eight feet with little effort.
Elk hunting isn’t as common as white-tailed deer hunting, but it’s certainly a pursuit some outdoorsmen enjoy.
One of the many differences between elk and white-tailed deer is the quality of their eyesight. This means that Wapiti are sometimes easier to hunt.
But there is one significant way that elk hunting is more strenuous and challenging than white-tailed deer hunting. Wapiti travel far distances, and hunting them may require a lot of traveling (including on foot) for the hunter.
Hunting elk generally means dealing with difficult terrains. Hunting this species also requires a lot of strategy and knowledge of migration patterns.
Whitetail deer tend to live most of their lives over a relatively small range. Wapiti, on the other hand, travel all over mountainous areas all through the year.
What are Eurasian (or European) Elk?
The animal referred to as the European Elk is actually a moose. It is native to the Eurasian continent.
Like North American moose, Eurasian Elk are massive animals. They have short tails, long legs, and a substantial body.
Like the moose in North America, the Eurasian moose is the largest cervid in Europe. Unfortunately, the Eurasian elk is extinct in many parts of Europe and Asia where it once existed.
Experts believe this animal may have lived in Scotland as late as 900 AD. The main reason for extinction in various places was hunting and environmental pressure.
Final Thoughts on the North American Elk
Let’s review a few important points we learned about North American elk:
- Elk live in various regions of the United States and Canada.
- There were up to 10 million elk in North America before Europeans arrived.
- There were once six elk subspecies, but now there are only four: Manitoban, Rocky Mountain, Tule, and Roosevelt elk.
- “European elk” are actually moose, not elk.
As the second-largest deer species in the world, the North American elk is a majestic species well worth learning more about.
With continued environmental and protection measures, this animal will continue to thrive and grow in its native environments.