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.
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.
Last updated: June 29, 2020