The elk is a large and breath-taking beast, much prized by hunters for its magnificent antlers as well as its tasty meat. They are members of the deer family, and are considered the second-largest example of this group. While once a far-ranging critter, elk are now found mainly in the western United States, though they may be found as far to the southeast as North Carolina.
Known for their earth-shaking bugling, elk can grow to 700 pounds (sometimes much more), and can be tough to hunt. This challenge brings hunters back to their haunts again and again, in pursuit of a memory and trophy that knows no equal.
Bull elk grow antlers, not horns. (Antlers are shed and re-grown each year, while horns are permanent.)
Dew claws: two small hoof-like protuberances at the rear of each foot.
Elk are four-legged critters that can grow to more than eight feet in length. Height at the shoulder of adults runs four to five feet. They have cloven hooves with fairly pointed "toes," so they leave two-pronged tracks on the ground. Occasionally the dew claws will also leave impressions, in softer ground.
Elk coloration varies from a copper-like tone to more of a beige, with a lighter-colored patch of hair on the rump. Many times, their neck and legs will be darker than the rest of their body. Antlers can be quite large, reaching far back along a bull's back when he raises his head to test the air or to bugle.
Similar to the whitetail deer, elk are very good at adapting to different habitats. Elk largely prefer forests and their edges, but have been known to thrive even in arid desert-like environments. Elk are so adaptable that in some non-native areas where they've been introduced, they have come to threaten native animal populations, which have a hard time competing with the elk's need to eat as much as fifteen pounds of vegetation per day.
The elk is outstanding in a number of ways. For their size, they are astoundingly evasive and agile. Their sharp sense of smell has been the downfall of many an elk hunter, and their ability to easily see movement means you'd better keep still and/or stay out of sight when hunting them.
Steer clear of cows with calves, as they have been known to charge to defend their young. Bulls will also charge sometimes, so getting too close to elk can he a hair-raising experience, to be sure.
Elk often feed in groups, so some members may keep an eye out for threats while others eat their fill. Elk are naturally a prey species, with side-mounted eyes that allow them to see threats coming from almost any direction. A bull elk with a harem of cows may not feed very often, as he is busy defending his females and breeding them.
During morning hours, elk seem to prefer fairly open areas for feeding, moving into thicker cover as the day progresses. In the afternoon and evening you may find them moving back into more open areas to feed. Like any wild animal, their feeding habits will vary.
Elk have been recorded to live as long as 26 years, but this is outstanding and rare. Most sources seem to agree that the average lifespan of an elk is nine to fifteen years.
As with other deer, the elk's mating season is called the rut. It occurs in the fall of the year, and may peak anytime from the second week of September through about the same part of October. The widest variations are caused by geographical distances, but moon phase and weather are also contributing factors that will vary the rut's timing and intensity.
After breeding, the gestation period is about 250 days, so births occur roughly eight months after the act. This allows the young to enjoy the milder weather of spring, rather than having to fight through winter, which can be brutal in some areas of the elk's range.
Elk communicate in a wide variety of ways, using calls, scents, and visual cues. Calls include barks, mews, squeals, grunts, coughs, and the bugle, which is probably the best-known of all elk vocalizations.
Visual cues are often seen in the way a bull walks, runs, or generally presents himself to other elk. This may mean a challenge, submission, or simply, "Howdy."
Elk, also known as wapiti, are quite amazing animals, and make a very satisfactory game animal for hunters. Hunting elk is something that has been going on for ages, and isn't likely to end anytime soon. Modern conservation efforts, mainly funded by hunters, have contributed much to the success of the elk population as a whole. While not nearly as dramatic a success story as that of the whitetail deer or wild turkey, the comeback of elk is certainly well under way.
Whether you're hunkered in the woods with your body all aquiver and the hair on your neck standing up, listening to an immense elk bugling nearby, or simply glassing them from across an open plain, the elk is bound to take your breath away and inspire a large amount of awe. And that's what hunting is all about... awe and respect for what God has given us, and the willingness to get out there and struggle to take a small piece of Creation home with us to preserve its memory and majesty in our hearts and homes.
- Russ Chastain