Elk on Ridgeline Trail

Elk on the Ridgeline Trail

Nathan King, NPS

"This stately and splendid deer, the lordliest of its kind throughout the world, is now fast vanishing." Theodore Roosevelt


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, a behavior that allows them to watch for danger collectively. An elk's preferred habitat in the park is open shrubland and grasslands interspersed with hardwood draws and juniper slopes, but they also use grasslands for grazing. Elk are herbivorous and have flexible diets that include grasses, forbs, and shrubby plants. They are most active at dawn and dusk.

Mature males grow large antlers for use during the breeding season, when they round up groups of females 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 were once 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 hunted out of the region by the late 1800s.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park reintroduced elk to the North Dakota badlands on March 13, 1985. After nearly two years of planning, forty-seven elk from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota were released into Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit. Since the reintroduction, elk have become well-established in the park and the population has grown significantly due to productive forage, favorable habitat, and the absence of natural predators.

Visitors to the park's South Unit have an opportunity to see elk, though they can be challenging to spot. 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.

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