Elk

Cervus elaphus (also called C. canadensis)

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Photo of a bull elk lifting its head and bugling
In July 2010, the Conservation Commission directed the Department to reinitiate development of an elk restoration plan.
Juanita Shore, Dreamstime.com
Species of Conservation Concern
Other Common Name
Wapiti
Family

Cervidae (deer) in the order Artiodactyla

Description

A very large member of the deer family with a thick neck, long, slender legs, a long head, and large ears. Elk are the second largest member of the deer family (after the moose).

Male elk (bulls) have antlers that are grown and shed annually; females (cows) generally do not. Elk antlers have a different size and conformation than those of white-tailed deer, being much larger and sweeping backward rather than forward. Antler size in elk increases with age up to 7 or 8 years and then plateaus; subsequently antlers gradually decrease in size. Antlers are shed from late winter to early spring.

Elk have two coats: a thick winter coat for insulation and a thinner summer coat. The overall coloration is tan, and both males and females have a dark brown head, neck, legs, and belly. A long, dark, shaggy mane hangs from the neck to the chest and is heaviest during winter. Elk have a light-colored rump and light tan or straw-colored short tail. Newborn elk young (calves) are spotted much like white-tailed deer. Calf elk are recognizable until 3–5 months of age, when their spots are lost and a normal winter pelage is grown.

Elk are vocal mammals issuing a variety of calls and sounds, including the male's well-known screaming “bugle,” plus grunts, mews, and barks, as well as a “knuckle cracking” sound produced by the front legs when walking that is a means of maintaining contact when a herd is moving through heavy cover.

Size

Length: 7–9 feet; weight: 500–830 pounds. Females are generally smaller than males.

Elk

Elk
Audio of elk in natural setting

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Bull Elk at Peck Ranch
Bull Elk at Peck Ranch

Elk

Elk
Elk

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Elk Calf with Collar
Elk calf with Collar
Habitat and conservation

In summer, high, open pastures and open woodlands; in winter, lower, wooded slopes, often dense woods. Before the coming of Europeans, elk, or wapiti, probably ranged over the entire region of what is now Missouri. By 1830, elk were becoming scarce; they eventually were limited to just the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state. By 1865, they were extirpated. Today, elk have been reintroduced, in large part, because of their popularity for hunting and ecotourism.

Foods

Elk consume roughly equal amounts of grasses, forbs (herbaceous nongrass plants), and woody browse such as twigs, bark, seedlings, saplings, and leaves, and they eat acorns in the fall when they are available. They are opportunistic feeders, and their diet largely depends on the available flora of the region, but they will seek out areas with their preferred foods. The proportion of grass, forbs, and woody browse in the diet changes by season. In general, the forb component will be highest in the spring and summer and the grass and woody browse components will be highest in the fall and winter. Lichen are consumed in some parts of their range. In southern Missouri, the newly restored elk rely heavily on deliberately planted food plots year-round. Like cattle, elk are ruminants and have four-chambered stomachs.

image of North American Elk Wapiti Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Recently restored in public lands in Carter, Shannon, and Reynolds counties.

Status

A Species of Conservation Concern in Missouri. Due to habitat loss and overhunting by settlers — usually for skins, leaving the meat behind — elk had been absent from our state since about 1865. Recent reintroduction efforts center around their novelty and their importance as a game animal. Elk hunting has long been popular and common in the western states. Biologists debate whether the North American elk, long known as Cervus canadensis, is the same species as the European red deer (C. elaphus). You will see it presented both ways.

Life cycle

Shortly before the fall rut (late September–early October), bulls lose the velvet on their antlers and begin to compete for females. Pre-breeding sparring establishes dominance hierarchies that are rarely crossed afterward. A dominant bull advertises his presence to attract a “harem” of cows (he will breed with each cow in his harem) and to discourage other bulls from intruding. Harems are usually made up of 1 bull and up to 6 females with their yearling calves, and are seasonal. Typically prime-age bulls (ages 5–10) hold harems, and younger and very old bulls remain on the outskirts of the group. Harem-holding bulls usually can scare off opponents with threat displays instead of aggressive and costly clashes. Still, during the breeding season males expend much energy guarding harems and may lose up to 17 percent of their body weight. Elk breed during the fall, and young are born in early summer. Cow elk generally have their first young at 3 years of age. In spring, pregnant female elk will typically leave groups and seek out calving habitat. After a gestation of about 8–9 months, cows give birth to a single calf; twins are rare. At birth, calves weigh around 33–35 pounds and have creamy spots on their back and sides. A calf is typically mobile 1 hour after birth. The cow and her calf will live alone for several weeks. Newborn calves are hiders, remaining immobile and hidden, with the cow visiting only to nurse and remove fecal material that could attract predators. Over a period of days, calves become increasingly mobile and can outrun many potential predators. At around 16 days the cow and calf will join the herd, and weaning is completed within 60 days. Elk live 20 years or more in captivity but average 10–13 years in the wild.

Human connections

Elk farming makes elk meat available in our groceries, and elk hunting is popular. Elk were historically important for food and hides. Many Native Missouri tribes, notably the Osage, hunted elk. For centuries, elk have held special symbolic and spiritual significance for Native American tribes.

Ecosystem connections

Gray wolves, red wolves, and mountain lions historically preyed on elk in Missouri, but populations of these predators no longer occur here. Black bear are known to prey on elk calves, and as Missouri’s bear population increases and expands its range, predation on elk may increase. Coyote and bobcat can take newborn calves. Today, in places where elk populations are secure, modern hunters keep elk populations in check.

Signs & Tracks

Front and hind tracks:

  • 4–5 inches long
  • 2 hooves.

Other notes:

  • Had been extirpated from Missouri since about the middle 1800s.
  • Currently have been restored to three Ozark counties.
  • Each track is heart-shaped overall, with a split down the middle.
  • Less pointed and much larger than the tracks of white-tailed deer.
  • Two dewclaws may leave dots behind each track, especially on mud or snow.
  • Hind tracks often overlap the front of front tracks (walking).
  • Distance of stride is 3–5 feet (walking); can be more than 15 feet when bounding.
Illustration of a single elk track