Elk are the most populous large mammal at Wind Cave National Park and perhaps the most difficult to spot. In summer, the best time to see them is at dusk or dawn when they feed, before retiring to shade during the heat of the day.
The bull elk's bugle call marks the beginning of mating season, generally in early September. The male's shrill, bugling pitch is intended to establish dominance and warn competing males away from his harem of cows. In September rangers offer guided programs several nights a week to listen in on this fascinating ritual. Call the visitor center at (605) 745-4600.
Along with their call, bull elk are easily identified throughout most of the year by their large, upward-swept antlers. An average set weighs about 30 pounds. During summer, an adult bull's antlers grow beneath a live, blood-carrying tissue called "velvet." When the antler are full-grown the velvet is rubbed off, revealing a shiny, hard rack carried throughout fall and winter and shed the following spring.
Cows bear a single calf in late May or early June, weighing 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 to lie completely still when danger approaches. Within two weeks the calf is able to keep up with the mother, and both rejoin the herd.
At one time the American elk was the most widely distributed member of the deer family on the North American continent. By 1900, only remnant herds remained in the Rocky Mountains, parts of the Pacific Northwest, and Canada.
In 1914, fourteen Rocky Mountain elk from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were introduced into the park, growing to over 900 almost a century later. For more information about management of the park's elk herd, read the park's Elk Management Plan.
Last updated: February 25, 2019