History of the North American Elk

The North American Elk is an important part of the continent’s history.

| January/February 2014

  • A bull elk gives a mating call from an open field.
    Photo by Chad Messa/Mesa Sky Wildlife Photography
  • Gritty bugling with the bulls
    Illustration by Brad Anderson
  • A female elk and her two calves stand in an open field.
    Photo by iStockphoto/MBRubin
  • An elk calf at the edge of a pond looking for a drink.
    Photo by iStockphoto/NathanHobbs
  • An elk crossing sign with a flashing light sits on the side of a highway.
    Photo by Chad Messa/Mesa Sky Wildlife Photography

There are certain sounds in nature — like the deep woods howling of a timber wolf, or the spine-tingling bugle of a bull elk across a mountain meadow — that have come to signify wild and remote places in our country. In the case of the North American Elk, or wapiti, more and more people in areas outside of the traditional Rocky Mountain Elk range are getting the chance to not only hear the mating calls of the dominant bulls, but to also take part in viewing or, in some cases, hunting elk in their home states.

Kentucky, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have all initiated programs to transplant or rebuild elk herds. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), a conservation organization based in Montana whose stated mission is “to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage,” has teamed with the game and fish departments of the various states to relocate elk from areas in the West. The RMEF has also provided money for habitat development and land acquisition in states with viable elk populations.

Elk history in America

Prior to European settlement, an estimated 10 million elk roamed nearly all of what is now the United States and parts of Canada. Elk adapted to almost all ecosystems except the tundra, true deserts and the Gulf Coast. Today, about 1 million elk live in the western, central and eastern United States and from Ontario, into western Canada.

Early explorers in North America gave elk their name because they thought the animals resembled the European moose, with which they were familiar. Elk are also referred to as “wapiti,” which is from the Shawnee and Cree tribal word waapiti meaning, “white rump.”

This species played a significant role in Native American culture — the Anasazi of the southwestern United States painted pictograms and carved petroglyphs of elk into cliffs thousands of years ago. Many tribes relied on elk for food and clothing. Elk hides were the source of blankets and robes. Some Native Americans used elk hides to cover their tipis and used the canine teeth, or “ivories,” of the elk for jewelry and clothing adornments. Even today, the “ivories” are treasured by hunters from all cultures as a prized possession of a successful hunt.

As the country was settled and western expansion began, the elk were slowly driven from their original range and eventually totally extirpated from most states east of the Mississippi. Continued development pushed the remaining herds to their last strongholds in the mountainous terrain of the western Rocky Mountain states and Pacific Northwest. Some estimates place the total number of elk as fewer than 50,000 at the turn of the century, a drastic reduction from the estimated 10 million elk roaming America when the first Europeans arrived.

5/8/2018 6:38:37 PM

In 1977 I saw a mountainside black with herds of elk about a hundred miles north of Denver en route to Cheyenne WY. The hunter said I was looking at hundreds of thousands of the critters.

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