Wildlife Portfolio of the Western National Parks
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WAPITI is the Indian name for the large deer, native of North America, which the white man commonly calls "elk." In Europe, the animal called elk corresponds to the American moose. Therefore, in order to avoid confusion and to prevent misunderstanding, the National Park Service has deemed it advisable to use the Indian name.

Formerly, wapiti were found over much of North America, especially in the Rocky Mountain region and adjacent parts of southern Canada. However, with the advance of civilization its range has been much circumscribed until, at present, its principal stronghold is in the Yellowstone National Park region. There, under the protection of the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, this species has increased and the herds contain many thousands.

The wapiti is comparable in size to the red deer of Scotland. A large male has a total length of 8 feet; tail, about 7 inches; height at shoulder, about 60 inches. The general coloration of the male is as follows: Head and neck dark brown; sides and back brownish-gray, with a large straw colored rump patch; lower legs dark brown like the neck. The male also bears widely branching antlers. The female is somewhat paler and does not bear antlers. This species is polygamous. The young usually number one to a litter, but twins are not uncommon. These young usually are born in June and are spotted at birth.

Wapiti usually have their summer range up in the mountain meadows, but in winter they are forced down by snow into the lowlands, as in the Jackson Hole region south of Yellowstone National Park. On the northern winter range, antelope, bighorn, wapiti, and deer all compete for the forage which is often sadly depleted. The worst of this problem is that, as these animals increase, the carrying capacity of the range is proportionately decreased. This has resulted in the overbrowsing and overgrazing of the winter range of the elk until the bad results of overgrazing have given the range little or no chance to recover. Winter feeding the elks hay has somewhat relieved the situation. On the summer range conditions are somewhat better because the elks scatter over a much larger territory and, as their concentration decreases, there is less overbrowsing and overgrazing of the meadows.

Another difficulty encountered on the northern range at Yellowstone National Park is that while many elks formerly drifted down and wintered in the lowlands outside of the park boundaries, the survivors have learned, through the continued shooting of elks in that vicinity, that it is much safer to remain inside the park boundaries, even though food may be scarce and the snow deep.

The fact must be faced that, at present, there are more elks in Yellowstone National Park than the winter range will support. A reduction of the herd is being made by the National Park Service in order to give the winter range a chance to recover and regain its former carrying capacity.


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Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010