History of the North American Elk

Once on the brink of extinction in parts of the country, the North American Elk is making a resounding comeback.

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A bull elk gives a mating call from an open field.
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Gritty bugling with the bulls
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An elk calf at the edge of a pond looking for a drink.
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A female elk and her two calves stand in an open field.
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An elk crossing sign with a flashing light sits as the side of a highway.

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.

As herds diminished, men like Teddy Roosevelt — who gave the name to the Roosevelt’s subspecies — saw the need to start a conservation movement to help protect some of the dwindling elk herds and other animals hunted to near extinction. States enacted hunting regulations and outlawed market hunting. Sanctuaries such as Yellowstone National Park were established, and elk were slowly reintroduced to areas where they had been extirpated. From a low of 50,000 total elk to the current estimates of around 1 million elk in North America, elk have proven to be resilient with little help.

Physical characteristics

The Rocky Mountain Elk is a large animal with a color that varies from copper brown in summer to light tan in fall, winter and spring. They have a light beige rump patch, and their legs and neck are often darker than their body. The females, or cows, average 500 pounds, stand 4 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, and are 6 1/2 feet long from nose to tail. The males, or bull elk, average 700 pounds and stand 5 feet tall at the shoulder and are 8 feet long from nose to tail. Only males have antlers, which start growing in spring and are shed in winter. Antler size can be very impressive with the largest antlers growing to upwards of 4 feet long and weighing 40 pounds or more.

Elk are a ruminant species with a four-chambered stomach; the first stores the food and the other three digest it. Its diet consists of grasses, forbs, tree leaves and bark. In the summer months, elk will eat almost constantly and can consume between 8 to 15 pounds of food daily.


Adult elk usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year. During the mating period, also called the “rut,” bulls will compete for the attention of cow elk. The bulls use a loud vocalization called bugling to attract cows and to advertise their dominance to other bulls. The bugling, which starts out as a bellow and ends in a whistle punctuated with a grunt, can be heard for miles. Bugling is most common early in the morning and late in the day with the purpose of building a harem of cow elk. The bull will keep his harem through the breeding season and defend it against predators or other amorous bull elk. Harems vary in size but may have up to 20 or more cows.

Cow elk will start to mate by their second year, and the gestation period is anywhere from 240 to 262 days. The baby, or calf, elk are born in late May to early June and weigh about 35 pounds. The calf is born with spots and is scentless to serve as protection from predators. Elk calves will grow rapidly, and by the time they are 6 months old, they will be as large as a mature whitetail deer. They will remain with their mother for about a year, or until the next season’s young are born. Cow elk communicate very vocally with each other through a series of squeals, chirps, barks and mews. Their vocalizations are so unique that a mother elk can identify her newborn calf by its own unique squeal.

Kentucky: An elk success story

Many states have worked diligently to either build or reintroduce elk into areas where they have not been seen for more than 100 years. A shining example of the partnerships between game and fish departments and private organizations is Kentucky’s efforts to reintroduce elk.

In 1997, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Game, along with the financial support of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, transplanted seven elk from Kansas into a 16-county restoration zone. This land area, which is approximately 4 million acres with more than 476,000 acres of public access, is roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park. From 1997 to 2002, 1,500 elk were transplanted from Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon and Utah. In 2001, the elk herd had grown to the point where a limited hunting season was held. Ten permits were issued that year, and the first wild elk in more than 150 years was harvested.

By 2009, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources had reached its goal of an elk herd of 10,000. In 2012, more than 33,675 people applied for the 1,000 licenses available through the lottery system. The elk herd has thrived in Kentucky with a 90 percent breeding success rate and a 92 percent calf survival. The absence of large predators, combined with the relatively mild winters and ample food sources, has contributed to the success of the herd. Not only are elk thriving in Kentucky, but they have also started to surpass their western counterparts in size. On average, Kentucky elk weigh 15 percent more than elk in western states. Kentucky can also lay claim to having the largest free-ranging elk herd east of Montana.


Although we may never see numbers of elk in North America approach the 10 million that were here when the first Europeans arrived, the future of elk in the United States and Canada has at least returned to sustainable populations. Elk populations continue to expand in areas of our country that have not heard the bugle of a bull elk in more than 150 years. Through the partnership of both state and private organizations, the outlook for continued reintroduction and growth of existing elk herds remains strong.

Tim Nephew, a freelance writer living in northwestern Minnesota, manages his 80 acres for wildlife.

Read more: Try this sweet and savory Skillet Cornbread Elk Casserole.

Originally there were six subspecies of North American Elk:

• Rocky Mountain (Rocky Mountain West) — largest antlers of all subspecies, and now transplanted to other locations

• Roosevelt’s (coastal Pacific Northwest) — largest in body size

• Manitoban (northern Great Plains)

• Tule (central California) — smallest body size

• Merriam’s (Southwest and Mexico) — now extinct

• Eastern (east of the Mississippi) — now extinct

Interesting elk facts

• An elk’s two top canine teeth are called ivories.

• Scientists believe ivories are remnants of saberlike tusks that ancestral species of elk used in combat.

• Bull elk can produce 22 to 24 pounds of antler velvet annually, and ranches that raise elk commercially collect and sell the velvet to East Asia where it is used in medicine.

• Most hunters save ivories as a memento of the hunt.

• Since 1967, the Boy Scouts of America have assisted employees at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming by collecting the antlers the animals shed each winter. The antlers are auctioned with 80 percent of the profit going to the refuge. In 2010, 5,600 pounds of antlers were auctioned, bringing in $46,000.