Elk are one of Wind Cave's most charismatic animals. These shy animals are members of the deer family and sometimes called wapiti, a Shawnee word that means "white rump." Though similar in appearance, elk are much larger than deer, with adult males (called bulls) weighing more than 700 pounds. Unlike deer, elk also have a distinct dark brown head and neck with dark legs.
In September and October, bull elk make a loud wailing bugle which marks the beginning of mating season. This haunting sound is made to establish dominance, attract cows, and show off to other males. During this time of the year, you may be able to join a ranger to listen for this iconic sound. Bulls will also fight each other using their antlers.
Along with their bugle, bull elk are easily identified throughout most of the year by their large antlers. An average set of antlers weighs about 30 pounds but can grow to be much larger. During spring and summer, their antlers grow beneath a soft, blood-carrying tissue called velvet. In late summer, the velvet is rubbed off to reveal the fully grown antlers underneath. In late winter, bull elk shed their antlers and immediately begin to regrow them.
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.
Reintroduction and Management
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. The eastern elk that once called the Black Hills home became extinct in the 1870s.
In 1914, 14 Rocky Mountain elk from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were introduced into the park, growing to several hundred almost a century later. For more information about management of the park's elk herd, request a copy of the Elk Management Plan, email.
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.