Rocky Mountain Elk

A bull elk bugles in the sunlight.
Elk are the largest deer found in Wind Cave National Park.

NPS photo

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.


Order Artiodactyla (same as bison, sheep, pronghorn)
Family Cervidae (deer family) Hoofed with antlers, which are shed each year. Same family as moose and caribou. Chew cud.
Genus Cervus
Species elaphus
The native subspecies, Eastern elk, were indigenous to this area. The Rocky Mountain subspecies was introduced to Wind Cave National Park in 1914.
Weight (lbs)




Height (ft)




Rut August-October. Bulls establish harem of 15-20 cows, sometimes up to 30 or as few as one.
Gestation 8.5 months
Birth May-June. Calves are able to walk shortly after birth. Cows stay away from herd for 2-3 weeks until calf is able to travel.
# young Usually 1
Age 14 years, up to 25 years

Semi-open forest, mountain meadows, foothills, plains, valleys. Once the most widely distributed members of the deer family in North America spread form the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Mexico to northern Alberta. Began to disappear in the east in the early 1800s.

Food Grass, browse, forbs. Take the elk quiz!
Predators Wolves (which are not found in Wind Cave NP), mountain lions, humans.
Disease Brucellosis, tuberculosis, anthrax, Chronic Wasting Disease

Calf squeal; cows squeal, bark and bugle; and bulls bugle. Communicating is used to call the year, alert, when animal is distressed, during rutting season as a challenge or possibly to vent emotions.

Bulls separate from the cow-calf herd until the rut. Older cows are the leaders.
Visit our keyboard shortcuts docs for details
10 minutes, 23 seconds

(video caption) A video about the challenges of and approaches to elk management at Wind Cave National Park


Ongoing Management

Management of the Wind Cave elk herd continues. Due to the high prevalence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) among the elk herd, the park began a reduction operation in late 2016 to reduce the population from about 475 elk to about 240. Culled elk were tested for CWD to see if reducing the population density reduced the disease prevalence as well. Meat that tested negative for CWD is donated to Feeding South Dakota, an organization dedicated to elimating hunger in the state.

Since 2016, periodic culling of elk continues as part of the CWD study and to maintain the elk herd at a level that can be supported by the park's forage area.

Read a copy of the 2020 Elk Closure Order and view a map or areas impacted by elk management activities with these links.

Articles About Elk in National Parks

Loading results...

    Last updated: June 29, 2020

    Contact the Park

    Mailing Address:

    26611 US Highway 385
    Hot Springs, SD 57747


    (605) 745-4600

    Contact Us