The elk (Cervus Canadensis) is the second largest member of the deer family (Cervidae). Only the moose is larger. The red deer of Europe is essentially the same size and was once thought to be the same species.
Antlers are the most obvious characteristic of elk and have several unique characteristics:
Antlers are different from horns which continue to grow throughout life, come to only one point (except for the two points on pronghorn antelope) and are composed of keratin instead of calcareous bone like antlers. Human hair and fingernails are made of keratin. As impressive as elk antlers are they are not nearly as large as those antlers the Pleistocene age Irish Elk had.
While antlers are used for defense against predators, they are also part of the male behavior during mating in the fall known as rut. They will posture showing how impressive their antlers are and that alone may cause smaller bulls to give way. Sparring and wrestling with antlers amongst more evenly matched bulls will usually determine which bull is stronger and thus which will mate more often and with more cows.
Call of the Wild
After breeding in the fall, and a gestation period of 240 to 260 days, each cow will try to seclude themselves when giving birth and will not rejoin the herd until their calf can travel and have a chance to escape predators. Some cows will have twins but a single calf is most typical. The calves are spotted which does help protect them from predators. By fall the spots will have faded. During spring and summer elk tend to stay in single sex groups until the next rutting season.
Where to Find Them
Some elk can be found in the Pryor Mountains, more in the Bighorn Mountains, and good sized populations in the greater Yellowstone region. Historically, the Crow tribe found rich hunting grounds for elk in the highest section of the Bighorn Canyon they named Bull Elk Basin.
Did You Know?
Bighorn Canyon NRA contains a portion of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. The current debate on management of the herd - 188 strong as of 2009 - concerns its size and whether or not it has grown too large for its protected range. More...