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Rocky Mountain Elk

Updated on August 17, 2013


Wapiti is a Shawnee Indian name that means white rump. To help remember this Indian word, you can use the rhyme Hippity hoppity goes the wapiti

Elk (Cervus elaphus) are the same species as European red deer, even though visually they are quite different.

North American elk are also called wapiti to distinguish them from European red deer.

Red deer are uniform in color and often have a cluster of points at the end of their antlers. Elk have dark necks, light rumps and antlers with a single point at the end.

Elk Subspecies

Pacific Northwest
Midwestern US and Canada
Rocky Mountain
Western North America
Eastern US (extinct)
Arid southwest US (extinct)

There are six recognized subspecies of elk in North America.

In late spring, cows will go off on their own for calving. Calves are born between mid May and early June and weigh about 13 pounds at birth. Occasionally a cow will have twins, but this is extremely rare. Elk are gregarious animals and gather into large herds of cows and calves in early summer. During this time, it is common to see groups of 100 elk or more. As the summer progresses, they usually form smaller groups across the summer range.

Elk are very vocal. Cows communicate with their calves using a mewing call. A sharp barking sound is used to warn of danger.

You can find a variety of web sites that give examples of animal sounds.

One place you can hear cow elk talk is on a Youtube video called “Elk talk at Oak Creek Elk feeding station.” The first minute or so has the best sampling of elk talk on the video along with a child commenting about what he hears.

For a sample of a bull bugle try “Bull Elk Bugle” also on Youtube.

You can make a pretty good elk call by blowing through a large corrugated drinking straw like the kind you get with a large insulated mug. No two elk sound alike and I have had bull elk bugle in response to the back feed noise created by holding a PA microphone too close to the speaker.

Dominant males gather harems of females during the breeding season or rut. Most breeding occurs between mid September and mid October. Rutting bulls will bugle to locate and challenge rival bulls or as a warning to keep rival bulls away from their harems.

After the rut, bulls leave herds of cows and calves. It’s not unusual for bulls to form herds with other bulls at this time.

In late winter bull elk shed their massive antlers. New antlers begin to grow as soon as the old ones are shed. Bulls usually live apart from the cows and calves through the summer, often forming small bachelor groups. Growing antlers are covered with velvet that provides nourishment. The velvet dries and begins to fall off in early August. (For more information on antlers see our antler growth hub at

All male members of the deer family grow a new set of antlers every year. Antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues in the world. In the fall the antlers drop off like this elk antler. Porcupines like to chew on shed antlers because they are rich in calcium.

Elk are big animals and during the summer, eat almost constantly, consuming between 8 and 15 pounds daily.

Although it is not uncommon to find mule deer and elk living in the same area, elk are more than twice as heavy as mule deer. Elk have a more reddish hue to their hair coloring, as well as large, buff colored rump patches and smaller tails. Elk cows average 500 pounds, stand 4.3 ft at the shoulder, and are 6.6 ft from nose to tail. Bulls are about 40% larger than cows at maturity, standing 4.9 ft at the shoulder, averaging 8.2 ft in length and weighing an average of 710 lb. Big bulls can weigh as much as 1300 pounds.

Elk are amazing and interesting animals, but their large herd sizes and healthy appetite can get them into trouble when they move into agricultural areas to eat.

A herd of 50 elk eating as much as 15 pounds of alfalfa a day can consume 750 pounds of hay. At $190 per ton, that comes to nearly $500 per week in lost income to farmers that have elk on their fields.

Wildlife managers use several tools to manage these confrontations. Some elk are trapped and relocated, some are fed elsewhere and some need to be harvested by hunters or biologists.


Elk in Utah

Elk are common in most mountainous regions of Utah. In fact, most biologists believe that elk were probably the most common game animal in Utah prior to settlement times. Elk were an important source of food and clothing for the early Indians, trappers, and pioneers.

Early records indicate that elk were originally found mostly in the open plains and valleys of the west. As the area was settled, they were driven into the mountains by hunting and competition for pasture from domestic livestock. These two factors resulted in a significant decline in the number of elk in Utah. From 1912 to 1925, transplants from Yellowstone National Park were used to to reestablish elk to their historic range.

Now they are usually found in mountain meadows and forests during the summer. During the winter they move down into the foothills and valleys to find food and avoid deep snow. Elk may be active during both day (diurnal) and night (nocturnal), but most activity occurs at dusk and dawn (crepuscular).

Elk will eat almost any kind of plant, but prefer grasses, forbs (flowering plants), and shrubs. These large animals can easily travel long distances to find food, water and cover.

Male elk are called bulls, females are called cows and a baby elk is a calf.

Elk in Utah are more closely tied to aspen than any other habitat type. Aspen stands provide both forage and cover for elk during the summer months and are used for calving in spring.

Elk will spend the winter months at mid to low elevation habitats that contain mountain shrub and sagebrush communities.

Water is also an important component of elk habitat. In Utah, elk on summer range prefer areas within 0.33 miles of a permanent water source. Other studies have shown elk use of summer range declined significantly beyond 0.5 mile from water.

Elk are doing very well in Utah. In fact, some of the largest antlered bulls in the world can be found here. A bull taken by Denny Austad in 2008 has been officially declared as the new world record non-typical elk. Austad hunted for 13 days before harvesting the elk.

This huge set of antlers weighs more than 40 pounds.

Elk are so popular in Utah that in 1971 the state legislature designated the Rocky Mountain elk as Utah’s state animal.

Some of our elk videos


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