Elk - Cervus elephus
At one time, the American elk was the most widely distributed member of the deer family on the North American Continent. They were found from Mexico to Alberta and from sea to sea, except on the southern coastal plains and in the Great Basin. However, as the pioneers moved west, hunting took its toll. Elk began to disappear from the settled regions until only remnant herds remained in the Rocky Mountains, parts of the Pacific Northwest, and Canada. In fact, the Eastern elk, which historically roamed the Black Hills, are extinct. In 1914, Rocky Mountain elk from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were introduced into the Park.
The name "elk" was given to the second largest member of the deer family by early explorers because they resembled the elk or moose of Europe. Because the American elk is not very closely related biologically to the European elk, the American Indian term "Wapiti" is sometimes used interchangeably to identify the animal.
NPS Photo by Mike Bromley
Like other members of the deer family, elk have distinct summer and winter coats. The elk's summer coat is a deep, reddish-brown with an almost orange-colored rump patch. This coat becomes a more gray-brown with a cream-colored rump patch during the winter.
The antlers of the adult Rocky Mountain bull elk consists of a long beam, sweeping up and back, usually with six tines. The average set weighs about 30 pounds. During summer, an adult bull's antlers are growing and are covered with a live, blood-carrying tissue called "velvet." When the antlers are full-grown and the velvet has been rubbed off, the elk are left with the shiny and hard rack typical of bull elk in the fall.
The first set of antlers of a young bull begins to grow when he is almost a year old. They are only spikes about 10 to 24 inches long.
These, like the adult's antlers, are shed in the early spring. By the time a young bull is four years old, he usually has the six-point antler characteristic of a mature bull.
NPS Photo by Tom Bean
In early September, the mating season begins with harem formation and bugling. Bugling is the term used to describe the call made by an adult male. The call begins on a medium clear note, rises gradually to a high pitch, and ends in a shrill scream followed by a series of grunts. While not the type of call one might expect from an animal of this size, once heard, the bugle is unmistakable. It is one of the truly wild sounds to be heard on this continent.
Listen to the elk (138k wma file)
A single calf, born in late May or early June, weighs about 30 pounds. At this time, the cow tends to stay away from other elk until her calf can travel. For protection from predators, the calf has a spotted coat and an instinct which causes it to lie completely still when danger approaches. By about one or two weeks the calf is able to keep up with the mother and they rejoin the cow/calf herd.
The summer is a time when elk are seen in large herds and are generally inactive during the day. These large herds are more easily seen at dusk or early in the morning when they feed.
Elk are timid in the presence of humans and it is very difficult to see these magnificent animals in this park.
For more information about Wind Cave National Park's elk management plan click on management plan.