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The Elk

The Elk is one of the species that i photograph on my photo workshops in Canada. Learn more about the elk on this page.

The Elk



The North American elk, or wapiti, is the largest form of the red deer species Cervus elaphus. In general appearance elk are obviously kin to the well-known white-tailed deer. However, elk are much larger. Among Canadian deer, they are second in size only to the moose. An adult bull elk stands about 150 cm tall at the shoulder and weighs about 300 to 350 kg, although some large bulls approach 500 kg in late summer before the rut, or breeding season. Cows are substantially smaller but still have a shoulder height of 135 cm and an adult weight of around 250 kg. 

The colour of the elk’s coat ranges from reddish brown in summer to dark brown in winter. Although it looks white from a distance, on closer inspection the rump colour is ivory to orange. In contrast to the rump, the head and neck are dark. Elk have long, blackish hair on the neck that is referred to as a mane. 

Male elk are notable for their impressively large antlers. It is amazing that these large structures are grown new each year by the animals in a period of a few months in spring and summer. Antlers look particularly large in summer when they are encased in velvet—a covering that protects them during growth. In later summer, the velvet is rubbed from the fully grown antlers, revealing the bony structure. Newly cleaned antlers are light grey in colour but become stained by rubbing and thrashing through vegetation during the rutting season. 

"Elk" is the name by which most Canadians know this majestic deer. "Wapiti," meaning "white rump," is the Shawnee Indian name and the common name preferred by scientists, because the animal known as an "elk" in Europe is not a red deer at all but a close relative of the North American moose. Other red deer, smaller and belonging to several subspecies, are found throughout the northern hemisphere: in Scotland and continental Europe, in North Africa, and in Asia.

Habitat and Habits

Elk are sociable animals. They are seldom found without other elk nearby. The herd lifestyle is characteristic of animals that live in open country. However, elk populations today occupy forest or parkland regions, where small groups averaging six or seven animals are common. 

Elk are long-lived animals: males survive to an average of 14 years, whereas females live as long as 24 years. Although they may travel widely, each elk is strongly attached to certain localities within its home range. Some in fact have home ranges of only a few square kilometres. Others have home ranges of several hundred square kilometres, of which they use different parts during different seasons. In the mountains such individuals often summer in the high country and winter in the valleys. However, elk are versatile animals and some may reverse this pattern or make visits back to their summer range during winter, snow conditions permitting, and down to their winter range during summer. Others may even switch between staying in a small area one year and using a large area the next. 

Bulls may occupy a "rutting range" that is separate from localities where they are found during the rest of the year. Whatever their seasonal pattern, most elk use the same ranges year after year. 

Unique characteristics 

Unlike other deer, elk have upper canine, or "eye," teeth. These teeth are a hangover from earlier evolutionary stages and now serve no apparent purpose. Their smooth rounded surface has made them attractive as jewellery. In the 1800s many elk were killed just to obtain the canine teeth.


When Europeans arrived in Canada, elk were widely distributed. Their range extended across southern Quebec, along the upper St. Lawrence (where they were probably one of the species recorded but ambiguously described by Jacques Cartier), and into southern Ontario. Their range continued around the northern margins of lakes Huron and Superior and along the present American border from the Lakehead to the prairies of Manitoba, but in these areas their populations were sparse. Farther west, on the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and north into the southern fringes of the boreal forest—the northernmost forest of the Northern Hemisphere—elk were numerous. In British Columbia, elk were found throughout the central and southern parts of the province east of the Coast Range, in the Lower Mainland around the mouth of the Fraser River and on Vancouver Island. 

Relative to western populations, numbers of elk must have been low in eastern North America, except in regions like western Kentucky, where the forests were interrupted by extensive grasslands. In any case, hunting extirpated elk from the east, including southern Ontario and Quebec, by the mid-1800s. Some elk may have survived in Ontario north of Lake Huron.

Relative to western populations, numbers of elk must have been low in eastern North America, except in regions like western Kentucky, where the forests were interrupted by extensive grasslands. In any case, hunting extirpated elk from the east, including southern Ontario and Quebec, by the mid-1800s. Some elk may have survived in Ontario north of Lake Huron. 

Settlement of the Canadian prairies deprived the elk herds of their habitat as it did the bison. However, scattered populations continued to exist throughout the forest regions skirting the prairies and in the mountains of the west. 

Elk numbers were at their lowest around 1900 in North America. Thereafter the pace of settlement in marginal areas slowed, market hunting was greatly reduced, the number of people living subsistence lifestyles declined, predators were reduced, and elk received increasing legal protection. Also, large forest fires caused by settlers converted substantial areas from forest to grass, shrubs, and saplings, providing abundant forage for the remaining elk. 

Elk were also reintroduced to areas of former range. In Canada’s Rocky Mountains the small remaining elk population in Banff and Jasper national parks was dramatically increased by several hundred animals brought from Yellowstone National Park in the United States between 1917 and 1920. Elk were also transplanted to northern Ontario in the 1930s. In British Columbia elk were introduced to the Queen Charlotte Islands and, in Yukon, elk were introduced northwest of Whitehorse in the early 1950s. The Yukon herd has maintained its numbers but has not grown. 

The present population of elk in Canada is about 72 000. Over half of the animals (40 000) are in British Columbia, mostly in the Kootenays and in the Peace-Omineca Region, but with a small population on Vancouver Island. Alberta’s 20 000 elk roam mainly in the Rocky Mountain foothills and the mountain national parks of Banff, Jasper, and Waterton. A scattered population exists in the parkland across central Alberta, where the boreal, or northernmost, forest meets the grassland and the creation of Elk National Park has made a notable contribution to the survival of elk in Canada. The park grew from a reserve established in 1906 to protect a small band of remaining elk. The elk thrived, and currently the fenced park of less than 200 km2 supports over 1 000 elk as well as moose, bison, and white-tailed deer. Elk Island has provided many elk for reintroductions and has also served as a research area for study of the species. 

Manitoba currently has a herd of around 7 000 animals, whose distribution centres on Riding Mountain National Park. The 15 000 elk in Saskatchewan are mostly in the southern fringe of the boreal forest north of Prince Albert and in the Moose Mountain, Cypress Hills, and Duck Mountain areas in the south of the province.


The annual cycle of the elk begins in spring with release from the snows and food shortage of winter. This is when calves are born, increasing the herd size. Calving usually occurs in areas with which the cow is very familiar. Some cows may seek the same area to calve in year after year. Others give birth to their calves wherever in their home range they happen to be when the time comes. The cows split off from other elk and seek seclusion and cover a few days before giving birth. 

Elk hide their calves for 10 days or more after they are born. The calves are genetically programmed to remain quiet and concealed as a defense against predators. Later, mother and offspring join others in cow/calf bands on the summer range. Beginning in August, the quiet summer life of the elk comes to an end with the start of the rut, or breeding season. 

The bulls, which have passed a lazy summer in small groups while their antlers grew large and heavy, now move into the cow/calf group and establish harems, or groups of cows they plan to mate with. In the process there is considerable fighting among the bulls. Large bulls eventually get control of as many as 20 or 30 cows and drive other males to the fringes of the herds. This does not mean, however, that the young males are totally left out of the breeding. While the large harem masters are running off intruders or rounding up straying females on one side of their group, a young bull may sneak in and mate with a female on the other side. 

Following the turmoil of the rut, the bull elk leave the females and move to good foraging areas to recoup their losses in weight and condition before winter. Some go back up the mountains to spend a few more weeks on the nutritious pastures of the alpine zone before snow forces them down. Elk usually, but not always, wait for coming of snow to move down to the valleys. There is considerable overlap between the winter ranges of bulls and cows. As bulls are larger and more powerful they can travel and dig through deep snow more readily than the cows, and by doing so they are able to have foraging areas to themselves.

Copy courtesy of www.hww.ca

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