Elk are members of the deer family called Cervidae, which is part of a larger group of mammals called ungulates (mammals with hooves). In North America there are five species of cervidae: elk, moose, caribou, white-tailed deer, and mule deer. All five of these animals live in Idaho.
The average elk lives about 20 years. Adults, although rarely hunted by predators, might fall victim to bears, mountain lions and grey wolves. The calves might be prey for coyotes or bobcats. They protect themselves by living in large herds of up to 400 in number.
Where Do They Live?
Elk once lived in many areas of the northern hemisphere, but excessive hunting and habitat destruction has limited their numbers in North America to largely the western United States and Western Canada. Only Colorado and Montana have more elk than Idaho. Elk have been reestablished in areas of Michigan and also introduced to countries such as Argentina, Chile and Australia, among others.
Elk need food, water, shelter and space to survive. Elk live all across Idaho but especially near large meadows where they graze on grasses and the leaves of shrubs and trees. They like meadows that are near forested areas where they can hide, when necessary.
Elk are herbivores. On average, an elk must eat about three pounds of food per day for every 100 pounds it weighs. This can add up to more than 15 pounds of food! Elk need plenty of space, too. They need to be able to reach their food, water, and shelter easily without human interference. Elk need a healthy habitat and are affected by how many people live in and around that habitat.
Adaptations: Color and Coat
Elk have developed a number of adaptations to help it survive. The Shawnee Indians called the elk Wapiti, which means “white rump.” This is because their hind end tends to be white in color. An elk's coat color is any shade from tan to dark brown depending upon the season. This color is found all around their bodies, including the legs and back. Their necks are usually darker than the rest of their bodies. Bulls tend to be lighter colored than cows. Its color provides them with camouflage.
In addition to helping protect the elk from predators, an elk's coat helps keep it warm or cool depending on the season. Twice a year, elk shed every hair on their body. Their spring shedding is noticeable because old winter hair dangles like long shaggy beards from their necks and sides. By July their winter coat is completely replaced by their summer coat. This coat has just one layer of hair. Longer, darker hair begins appearing on their heads and necks sometime in early September. An elk's winter coat is five times warmer than its summer coat. It consists of two layers — thick, long guard hairs and a dense woolly undercoat. An elk's ability to grow the coat it needs is a type of adaptation for survival.
Adaptations: Life Cycle
Bulls and cows are different sizes. Bull elk can weigh about 700 pounds. A cow elk can weigh more than 500 pounds. Elk gather in herds. Living in a herd helps them stay safe from predators.
During the spring, elk migrate to higher elevations in search of new plants, often following routes that they have traveled before. Migration is a seasonal movement of an animal. Elk spend their summers in the mountains where food is abundant and the temperature is cool. In the fall, snow in the high country give elk the signal to head to lower elevations. The fall is elk mating season. Bull elk will fight each other to gain control of what is known as a harem.
Calves are born eight and a half months after mating. The calves are born from mid-May through early July. Tyically only one calf, weighing about 35 pounds, is born. During its first few weeks, the calf may gain up to two pounds a day. The mother elk will leave the calf hidden alone for long periods of time to prevent predators from locating the calf by sniffing out the scent of the mother.
Elk are known for their huge antlers. Antlers are a fascinating adaptation of the deer family. The males of the Cervidae family grow antlers. The caribou females also grow antlers.
Each spring, male deer and bull elk begin growing antlers from bony bumps on their heads. It takes an elk four or five months to completely grow a set of antlers. Antlers begin as layer upon layer of cartilage that slowly changes into bone. They are light and easily damaged until late summer when they completely turn into bone.
The antlers are covered with a thin skin called velvet. The velvet is covered with fine, short hairs and contains thousands of blood vessels, which carry calcium and minerals needed for building strong bones. Once the velvet is gone, grooves and ridges on the antlers mark the paths of veins that carried blood throughout the antlers.
An antler grows faster than any other kind of bone. It can grow up to one inch a day during the summer. By summer's end, a set of elk antlers may be as much as 4 feet long, with a spread about as long and weight up to 40 pounds. Bull elk shed their antlers every spring. The antlers fall off after being carried around for six or seven months.
Adaptations: Foraging and Food
An elk has a special stomach to digest all the food it takes in. An elk's stomach actually has four parts. To understand how this “super stomach” works, imagine the “unchewed” food an elk eats sliding into a large chamber of the stomach. Here up to 15 pounds of food is stored. Part, but not all, of the food can be broken down.
Later, usually when resting, the elk regurgitates or brings that food back up into their mouth. This is known as cud. Chewing cud refers to chewing more thoroughly the food that is brought back up into the mouth. When it is completely chewed, the elk swallows it again. The food particles pass through the large part of the stomach and into a second chamber for even more digestion. Then the food passes into a third chamber where water is squeezed out and absorbed into the elk's body. Finally the food passes into the fourth and “true” stomach where it is broken down to the level that it can be absorbed by the intestine.
Teeth also play an important role in the elk's eating habits. Elk have sharp incisors for biting off plants and broad and flat molars for mashing plants. Molars line both the upper and lower jaw, but incisors occur only on the lower jaw. Teeth help biologists identify an animal's approximate age. A cross section of an elk's tooth will show annual growth rings, just like a tree.
Adaptations: Fleetness of Foot
Speed is high on a list of survival needs for an elk. Out-running danger is an elk's best defense against predators. An elk's body is built for speed. Their long legs are packed with muscles that are perfect for running. Elk are able to take long, graceful strides. Before running from danger, an elk must sense the danger is near.
Adaptations: Sensitive Senses
Elk have a great set of senses which they use to protect themselves and to communicate with each other. Big ears help the elk to hear any noises that might indicate trouble. Eyes located on the sides of their head help them to have a wider range of vision. They may not see objects as well as we do, but they are very good at detecting movement.
They can also detect danger and food through their sense of smell. One of their most famous communication methods is their bugle call. The males use this to warn of danger and to find a mate. The cows and the calves also have distinct vocal sounds that they make. Visit the American Expedition website for a chance to hear the male elk call.
Rocky Mountain elk are one big game species that may be fed during a difficult winter. Winter feeding is a term biologists use to describe when humans supply food to wild animals during the winter. Whether or not people should do this has become a yearly discussion in Idaho. There are many issues to think about. Biologists know that whether they are fed or not, some elk won't survive until spring. When considering winter feeding, the goal is always protection of the herd rather than the individual animal.
Feeding may be necessary in some areas because it keeps elk away from private property where hungry elk could cause a great deal of damage. Another necessary reason to feed is to keep animals off busy roads. In areas where winter range has been lost completely, feeding animals is necessary to “save the herds.”
One of the downsides of winter feeding is that the animals may come to depend on it every year. They will stop migrating to areas that have had enough food in the past. When animals are crowded together, such as in a winter feeding operation, diseases can spread easily from one animal to another. Winter feeding is also expensive. The type of feed is also important to consider. Deer that are only given hay can actually starve to death because their stomachs aren't made to digest hay.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's policy on winter feeding is to only feed in emergency situations. They may step in to feed in winters where abnormally high death rates are expected due to extreme winter conditions. Citizen committees have been formed to help determine when feeding is appropriate. Each committee tracks snow depth, temperature, animal condition, depredation and other factors to determine whether winter feeding is needed. Everyone enjoys seeing the elk in our state and want to do what is best for them.
Elk in History
Elk and people have lived in the same habitat for thousands of years. Prehistoric sites have given us clues as to how ancient peoples coexisted with elk.
Elk are painted on rocks throughout archaeological sites in the western United States. These pictographs many have been a form of communication among the people. Some pictographs, however, appear to be decorative.
Native people worked hard to hunt elk. They took only what they needed and used as much of the elk as possible. Elk provided them with meat, weapons and tools, toys and blankets. There is evidence that elk may have played a spiritual role in the lives of some tribes across the United States.