NPS / Nathan King
Elk are a large member of the deer family with thick necks, long, thin legs, and a conspicuous light-colored rump patch. They are often found in herds, which allows them to watch for danger. An elk's preferred habitat in the park is open shrubland and grasslands interspersed with hardwood draws and juniper slopes. Elk are herbivorous and their diets include grasses, forbs, and shrubby plants. They are most active at dawn and dusk.
Mature males (called bulls) grow large antlers for use during the breeding season, when they round up groups of females (called cows) and defend them from other males. During the autumn rutting season, bull elk announce their presence by bugling loudly. Calves are usually born in early June.
Elk in the Park
Elk were numerous throughout much of the United States, but pressure from over-hunting and human development forced them from much of their former range. Once native to the Badlands of North Dakota, elk were gone from the region by the late 1800s.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park reintroduced elk to the North Dakota Badlands on March 13, 1985. Since the reintroduction, the elk population has grown significantly due to productive forage, favorable habitat, and the absence of natural predators. For more information about elk in the park, visit our elk management page.
Visitors to the South Unit have an opportunity to see elk; although they have been sighted in the North Unit, elk are rare in that region. The animals can be challenging to spot, and the key factor is not where but when. Like most grazers, elk are commonly seen in or near prairie dog towns. The best time to look for them is at dawn and dusk as they usually remain hidden in wooded areas during much of the day.