The name wapiti is from the Shawnee and Cree word waapiti, meaning "white rump". This name is used in particular for the Asian subspecies (Altai wapiti, Tian Shan wapiti, Manchurian wapiti and Alashan wapiti), because in Eurasia the name elk continues to be used for the moose.
Members of the genus Cervus (and hence early relatives or possible ancestors of the elk) first appear in the fossil record 25 million years ago, during the Oligocene in Eurasia, but do not appear in the North American fossil record until the early Miocene. The extinct Irish elk (Megaloceros) was not a member of the genus Cervus, but rather the largest member of the wider deer family (Cervidae) known from the fossil record.
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Bulls have a loud vocalization consisting of screams known as bugling, which can be heard for miles. Bugling is often associated with an adaptation to open environments such as parklands, meadows, and savannas, where sound can travel great distances. Females are attracted to the males that bugle more often and have the loudest call. Bugling is most common early and late in the day and is one of the most distinctive sounds in nature, akin to the howl of the gray wolf.
Bull: 700 pounds (315 kg) (Tule elk: 400 lbs., Roosevelt’s elk: 900 lbs.) 5 feet (1.5 m) at the shoulder 8 feet (2.4 m) from nose to tail
Elk live 20 years or more in captivity but average 10 to 13 years in the wild. In some subspecies that suffer less predation, they may live an average of 15 years in the wild.
Gnawed aspen and other deciduous tree trunks are also common in elk country during winter. The bottom-teeth-only scrape marks of elk and moose are virtually identical. Gnawings may also be found on downed trees and branches and are easily distinguished from the chisel-like cuttings of beaver.
Viewing Elk Elk are primarily crepuscular (active mostly at dawn and dusk), so early morning and late evening are the best times to observe them. But when temperatures soar or when they are harassed, elk may become more active at night.
Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) occur primarily in the mountain ranges and shrublands east of the Cascades crest. Small herds have been established, or reestablished, throughout other parts of western Washington. Rocky Mountain elk populations currently in Washington stem from elk transplanted from Yellowstone National Park in the early 1900s.
Because legal status, hunting restrictions, and other information about elk change, contact your local wildlife office for updates.
Bull: Male elk Cow: Female elk Calf: Baby elk Spike: Yearling bull elk
For information on fencing, see below. For information on repellents, scare tactics, and other ways to reduce human/elk conflicts, see the handout on Deer. For tips on how to prevent a vehicle collision with an elk, see Tips for Driving in Deer Country.
Calls Elk are the noisiest member of the deer family in North America. Males are known for their eerie bugles during the rutting season. The bugle starts with a guttural groaning that quickly yields to a high-pitched whistle, and often ends with a few repetitive low-toned grunts.
Although breakdown figures for each game species are not available in the 2006 National Survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting of wild elk is most likely the primary economic impact.
During the late summer breeding season the bugling of bull elk echoes through the mountains. These powerful animals strip the velvet off their new antlers using them in violent clashes that determine who gets to mate with whom. Males with the bigger antlers, typically older animals, usually win these battles and dominate small herds.
The best way to view wild elk is to find a meadow, clearcut, or other open grassland elk have been using and to wait quietly nearby. Because elk have a keen sense of smell, it is best to be downwind of where you expect them to come from. (Contact your local Fish and Wildlife office for information on where to view elk in your area.)
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Although they are native to North America and eastern Asia, they have adapted well to countries in which they have been introduced, including Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Their great adaptability may threaten endemic species and ecosystems into which they have been introduced.
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Neolithic petroglyphs from Asia depict antler-less female elk, which have been interpreted as symbolizing rebirth and sustenance. By the beginning of the Bronze Age, the elk is depicted less frequently in rock art, coinciding with a cultural transformation away from hunting.
Maser, Chris. Mammals of the Pacific Northwest: From the Coast to the High Cascades. Corvalis:
When disturbance levels are low and temperatures mild, elk may be observed feeding in short bouts throughout the day. When not hunted, elk adapt well to humans and find lawns and golf courses excellent places to graze.
Feeding Areas In winter, look for pits dug in snow where elk have been pawing for food, or for the well-worn trails or crisscrossing tracks in the snow typical of foraging elk.
“Wapiti” is the name for Rocky Mountain elk in the Shawnee language and means “white rump.”
Public Health Concerns Elk are not considered a significant source of infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans or domestic animals. However, as when working with any wild animal, it is recommended that you wear rubber gloves if you need to handle a sick or dead elk; wash your hands afterwards, and fully cook all elk meat to 160~F.
In the winter, wapiti reconvene into larger herds, though males and females typically remain separate. The herds return to lower valley pastures where elk spend the season pawing through snow to browse on grass or settling for shrubs that stand clear of the snow cover.
For any fence to be effective, it must be seen by elk. A group of elk led by the dominant cow will go through any type of fence, except perhaps a cyclone fence, if the fence is in their path and they don’t see it before the group is upon it.
Regardless of the cause of this behavior, the result is obvious: small saplings and shrubs are left looking like someone with a hedge trimmer went on an angry rampage. In areas where elk are abundant, mangled shrubs and small trees are extremely obvious signs of the presence of bulls and their preparation for breeding.
Figure 2. During the mating season (called the rut) in early fall, the larger, more aggressive bull elk gather harems of cows, which they defend against competing bulls. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.)
Aspen trunks that have been gnawed year after year eventually develop a rough, blackened trunk as far up as the animal can reach. A grove of black-trunked aspen is a sign that winter range has been heavily used by elk or moose.
Male elk retain their antlers for more than half the year and are less likely to group with other males when they have antlers. Antlers provide a means of defense, as does a strong front-leg kick, which is performed by either sex if provoked. Once the antlers have been shed, bulls tend to form bachelor groups which allow them to work cooperatively at fending off predators. Herds tend to employ one or more scouts while the remaining members eat and rest.
Preventing Conflicts In most areas, elk summer ranges are on public lands, whereas winter ranges largely are on private lands. Herein lies the source of most complaints of damage to crops and property.
Since 1967, the Boy Scouts of America have assisted employees at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming by collecting the antlers which are shed each winter. The antlers are then auctioned with 80% of the proceeds returned to the refuge. In 2010, 2,520 kilograms (5,560 lb) of antlers were auctioned, bringing in over $46,000.
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Hybrids, or genetically mixed populations of Roosevelt elk and Rocky Mountain elk, are common in the Cascade Range.
Range and wildlife managers conduct surveys of elk pellet groups to monitor populations and resource use.
Contact the agency that owns large areas of elk habitat near you. Ask them to carefully manage such things as the timing and distribution of firewood cutting, logging, and the density of roads in order to minimize elk disturbances, especially in high-use summer areas.