Elk: Majestic Forest Denizens

By Dave Hanks

Cervus elaphus, or Wapiti are large and very striking beasts. To hear their bugling on the autumn air is moving and unforgettable. A group of them on a hillside lends a definite aesthetic quality to the surroundings. They are wide spread over the west in high, open mountain meadows. Winter sees them more often in the trees, seeking thermal cover.

Elk can run 35 mph and are strong swimmers. They are, also, very hardy and can withstand the harshness of winter better than deer. When the food supply is short, they will strip the bark from trees. Thus, they can destroy their own habitat – a recent problem in Yellowstone Park. Mountain Lions and Wolves are their major predators. Predators are a benefit to them by keeping their productive population numbers in balance with the food supply. Cattle that get too thin will fail to reproduce, or to even come into estrus. Elk are no different. Food supplies definitely affect reproductive success.

Old velvet itches and the bulls will thrash it off on bushes. This action stimulates the production of testosterone in preparation for the rutting season. Fights for dominance then occur but injuries from them are rare, except on occasion when antlers get inter-locked resulting in death to both bulls. Besides bugling, bulls will urinate on bushes, wallow in murky water, mud, and urine. I don’t know whether this attracts the cows or releases some of the male’s stress. Harems are collected, of up to 60 cows, which the dominant bull will herd to keep assembled. There is a price to pay for this privilege - loss of important fat needed to survive the upcoming winter – and many of these bulls will not live until spring. The resulting calves are born in spring and feed only on milk for their first month and are weaned at nine months.

This animal, a favorite of many hunters, is adaptable enough that species numbers are greater now than when Europeans first settled in this country. Some years ago, when we first entered Yellowstone at the north entrance portal, a huge bull, with gigantic antlers, was posing on the hillside as if to welcome everyone into the park.

(A bull in autumn prime)