(The Native American word for Elk)
For me the name conjures images of a majestic bull standing on a mist shrouded mountain ridge, head back letting the world know that he is king, with a series of squeals and grunts known as "bugling". This image is the one that I hopefully will be able to capture on my camera, someday. This quest for this shot has virtually taken us from coast to coast and even into Alaska.
Elk, prior to colonization, roamed most of what is now America with the exception of the desert and tropical areas. By the turn of the 1900's due to settlement and ensuing market hunting the few hundred remaining elk were confined to the high reaches of the Rocky Mts.
Increased enforcement of game laws and establishing our national parks allowed the elk to repopulate large amounts of alpine territory in our western states.
Colorado, Montana, Washington and Wyoming, are states that are synonymous to viewing elk , but thanks in part to the Rocky Mountain Foundation, they now have free roaming elk in the hills and forests of a number of states including Arkansas, North & South Dakota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan Minnesota, Wisconsin, and others.
ELK Viewing in the upper Midwest
The big bull elk stood there glaring at me over the top of the Pontiac Vibe, less than a minute ago I was standing there looking at the electronic caller wondering if the button marked HYPER ESTRUS would work. IT WORKED!
We had been cruising the forest roads of Chequamegon National Forest in the vicinity of Clam Lake, which is the core area for viewing a free roaming elk herd in Wisconsin. We had been trying all morning to get a bull to answer our attempts at bugling, the challenge call of the herd bulls during their breeding season. We had spotted a cow and her calf on a bank along side of the road and we disembarked from the car to take some photos. She seemed content that we would not harm her and continued grazing on the grass. After growing bored at taking pics of this pair. I decided to try my call. Why not! I had looked around, even using my binoculars and saw nothing. The call had not even completed its cycle. When here HE comes from the thick cover on the other side of the road and I am there between him and his girl friend. Good thing I was close to the car. It did cross my mind that a Vibe is not very big when it comes to hiding from a testosterone loaded 800 pound animal with big antlers. Our traveling companion had to concur, because it was her car. Then a very strange thought came to me as the bull starred in my direction. If I blew the challenge call just maybe we could get a close up of a bull bugling. So I did and then even a stranger thing took place. The big bull turned and ran off.
Later that day we met with the local biologist and told him about our little adventure. Upon showing him the images of the bull he explained why the bull ran off. He was not Mr. BIG!
Facts about North America's second largest member of the deer Family
The deer family is broken into two broad categories. Old World deer and New World deer. The New World deer are represented in North America by mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose and caribou. Elk are the only North American members of the Old World deer group. "Old World" refers to deer from Eurasia and "New World" refers to deer found in North America. The classification is based on physical and behavioral features, not location, and are not especially helpful because moose are found in Europe and elk are found in North America.
Elk are predominantly brown in color, although their bodies exhibit varying hues. The neck and head of an elk are typically dark brown or chocolate colored. The back and flanks vary from a rich light brown to tan. Males have antlers and often appear lighter than females on the body, with sides sporting a very pale tan variation or a noticeably yellow coloration. The legs and underbelly of elk are dark, corresponding in color to the hair on the neck and head. Elk rumps appear large and pale in comparison with the rest of their body. Thus, mature elk exhibit a three-toned appearance that lightens when viewed from the front to the rear of the body dark brown on the head and neck, medium brown to tan on the sides, followed by a lighter, cream-colored or yellowish rump. During the few months of summer when elk are adorned with shorter hair coat their overall coloration is more golden or reddish than at other times of the year.
Social dynamics of the elk
Herd animals live in a social system governed by dominance. The dominance hierarchy is established through aggressive behaviors. Cow elk will rear up and flail away at each other in order to show who is boss. The loser moves off to a less desirable bit of grazing.
Bull elk also engage in bouts of sparring. Sometimes the contest is between two bulls of equal size, but it does not seem to matter. Little bulls will readily challenge mature bulls. More often than not, the mature bulls will respond and give the little guy an opponent. Most of the time these battles do not get out of hand, but in September a smaller bull would run for his life?
Bull elk retain their antlers long after the breeding season ends. In fact they keep their antlers longer than any other male deer. Carrying that much extra weight comes at a cost in energy. There must be a benefit to the bull elk to offset this cost. Likely it is an adaptation used against predators, especially wolves. It does allow them to dominate lesser bulls and cows in prime feeding areas.
Sometime around the end of August hormonal changes begin to prepare both bulls and cows for breeding. The necks of bulls swell considerably and by early September they begin to exhibit aggressive behavior such as raking their antlers on trees goring the ground and small shrubbery with their antlers, and bugling. Somewhere around the middle of September, approximately a week or two before the autumnal equinox bulls enter the period of maximum reproductive behavior, which usually lasts from twenty to thirty days. The "rut" technically refers to this season of intense reproductive activity. With little time to eat and constantly on guard against rivals, a mature bull may lose 200 pounds during the rut.
Bull elk are more confident in heavier bush than cow elk are. Their bigger size and impressive weapons give them the assurance to take more risks. Bull of many species share this behavior. The risks may be greater but so are the benefits, since females will avoid the better pastures if there is a risk of predators. Elk seek out wind-blown slopes and meadows where snow depth is minimal. There they will find easier access to the grasses they require. Sometimes they will share these same pastures with bighorn sheep.
Elk were mainly a prairie species and were encountered frequently by pioneers as they moved westward. However, they were soon "shot out" and survived only in those areas where farming and ranching were, to say the least, marginal activities. As a result, elk survived in mountains and aspen parklands. Today we mistakenly think of them as a mountain-loving species.
Elk and their Predators
The gray wolf is the major predator in the elk's world. Wolves were once the most widespread of any large predator. Possibly, only the lion exceeded them. Wolf chases involving elk can cover a lot of ground because elk have a lot of stamina but so too do wolves. Elk cows tend to flee as soon as they spot a pack on the prowl. All things being equal, there is a good chance the cow will escape. But wolves are expert at exploiting mistakes and unexpected events. Deep snow may slow the cow or she may slip on ice.
Elk are long-legged "cursors". When faced with a predator they escape by employing a strategy of rapid and sustained flight. They do not leap like whitetails or stand their ground like moose. The elk's strategy works best in open plains where there are few obstacles to overcome. Elk may attempt to chase off a pesky coyote but will not stand and face a pack of wolves or a bear.
Elk in Winter
Elk are large enough to contend with moderately deep snows in winter. Living in herds helps the cows and calves break trails. Cows and calves are more likely to survive winter than are the bulls. Bulls use up a lot of their fat (stored energy) during the rut and if they cannot rebuild these reserves in late fall they may starve to death.
Like all deer, Elk are ruminant. They chew their cud. A cud is partially digested vegetation that is regurgitated from its first stomach, the rumen for a good "chew" while the animal is resting. Then it is re swallowed and goes through further breakdown in the animal's other three "stomachs," the reticulum, omasum and abomasum. Elk feed readily on new grass. Grasses rely on silica to make themselves less appealing to most herbivores. Foliage, on the other hand is protected by chemical and mechanical means. In the spring, new foliage lacks thee defences, and gras has not yet become toughened with silica. As the grasses harden elk turn their attention to browse as well.
Elk drop their antlers in late March or early April. Immature bulls may even keep theirs until May. By the end of April, however, antler growth is well -advanced on the mature bulls.
In the spring, bull elk are usually found alone or with only a couple of other males. Adult bulls are confident in their abilities to cope with predators. They select areas that offer the best nutrients for their growing antlers.
Elk country is often a mixture of open meadows or prairies, mountains and fairly open forests. Elk rely on their vision to spot predators and will move off once they spot one. Elk are alone when they give birth. They leave their herd and seek a sheltered place. A young elk calf can walk within an hour or two of its birth but it is not yet able to outrun a wolf or grizzly. The mother leads it a short distance away from the birthing spot after eating most of the afterbirth. She also ingests the calf's urine and feces to reduce telltale odors. The calf needs to exercise a bit too before it will be fed. Elk calves will hide for about four days after birth. Then they too will follow their mothers and bed near them.
Elk typically have only one calf, and twins are rare. They will lose their spotted coats as the summer passes.
Most elk calves are born in a three-week period from the end of May to mid-June. The cow will nurse her calf only a few times during the day perhaps as few as five or six times. She calls to her calf and the calf emerges from its hiding spot to feed. The cow ends feedings abruptly.
Elk calves can keep up with the herd when they are sixteen days old. Both deer and elk offspring use the "hider strategy" of lying still and hidden for the first few days of their lives to avoid detection by predators. As soon as deer fawns and elk calves are developed enough, they will become cursorial and flee from their predators.
Some Successful Elk Reintroduction Projects
Elk are also well established in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and some have even swum across Lake Ontario. Ontario's most recent attempt at elk reintroduction has also had success. Today there are about 500 animals in the province. Michigan has between 800 and 900. Pennsylvania has about 800.
The free roaming herd in Michigan is located in the Pigeon River State Forest near Gaylord; For more info about the free ranging herd and a herd that the city maintains for viewing go to; http://www.gaylordmichigan.net/elk-viewing-40/
The images below consist of pictures of elk we have viewed across the U.S.