Elk (Cervus canadensis)

Bull elk in velvet with a brown headed cowbird on his back
Elk are elusive at Jewel Cave National Monument and are rarely seen.

NPS Photo

A Cow elk and her calf watch cautiously
Although elk are rarely seen, their tracks and scat are a common occurrence along the 3.5 mile Canyons trail loop.

NPS/ Neal Herbert

Cervus candensis
  • The Rocky Mountain elk once ranged in the United States nearly from coast to coast, north to south. Market hunting in the 1800s reduced their numbers drastically but they have since recovered to a healthy population.
  • Elk are the second largest deer species in the world and the third heaviest mammal in the United States.
  • Elk are also known as “Wapiti” globally, because in Europe the name "elk" is used for what we in North America know as a "moose". Wapiti is the Shawnee word for elk and means “White Rump”.

Size and description
  • Elk are quite recognizable and not easily confused with other deer like mule deer or white-tailed deer.
  • Males, known as bulls, are known for their massive antlers, which are some of the largest in respect to body size in the world. Bulls have huge bodies, weighing up to 650 lbs. or more and standing 4-5 feet at the shoulder.
  • Females, called cows, do not have antlers but are also noticeably large animals. Weighing an average of 350 lbs. and standing around 4 feet at the shoulder.
  • Both cows and bulls have the same coloration and have distinct winter and summer coats.
  • During winter, the head, neck, belly and legs are dark brown, and the back is a much lighter gray brown.
  • During summer, elk have a more even reddish-brown coat.
A herd of cow elk and one calf stand on a hill beneath ponderosa pine trees.
Female elk, called cows, will spend time in small herds in the springtime while raising calves.

NPS/ Quentin Bucker

  • Like most deer species, elk are more active and have more ‘personality’ during their breeding season or ‘rut’.
  • Elk are gregarious and spend most of their time in herds, outside of the rut older bulls will live in their own herd while cows, yearlings and young bulls will live in their own herd.
  • During the rut bulls will fight with their antlers for dominance over groups of 15-20 receptive cows called a harem.
  • When looking for cows or rivals, bulls will use a unique vocalization called ‘bugling’ to locate each other.

  • Elk are primarily grazers and subsist mostly on grass in open prairies or meadows, but when necessary (usually in winter when grass is difficult to access) elk may rely on browsing brushes and other higher up edibles.

Interactions with other animals
  • Nearly all of the elks natural predators have been extirpated from the black hills, inlcuding wolves and brown bears. These days Mountain lions and human hunters are the top predators of elk, while elk calves are on the menu for coyotes and bobcats.


Last updated: January 10, 2024

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