Forest Feature: Elk

Bull elk grow antlers for the fall mating season

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we’re dedicating the November Forest Feature to showing our appreciation for an animal that has historically given much to people in the Pacific Northwest – the mighty elk!

Elk (Cervus canadensis) are among the largest species of the deer family in the world. They are also among the largest wild animals in North America – only moose and bison are larger among the non-domesticated species. (Fun fact: “Wild” horses on this continent are actually untamed domesticated horses, sometimes called “feral” horses – they cannot be truly ).

Elk from the Dosewallips elk herd along Highway 101

Elk from the Dosewallips elk herd along Highway 101 in Brinnon, Wash. on the Olympic Peninsula, Aug. 1, 2018. Elk herds are known to cross Highway 101, including the Dosewallips & Dungeness herds. As temperatures get colder, more animals start to live at lower elevations, near roads and some elk herds stay at lower elevations year-round. Courtesy photo by Karen Guzman (used with permission)

Elk first arrived in North America from Asia about 23 million years ago.

Historically, elk have been revered in many cultures. The meat from a single elk can feed many people. Their large hides can be used to create tents to house people, or clothing and shoes to protect them from the elements.

In North America, archaeologists have found images of elk that are thousands of years old, carved by the Anasazi people.

A Roosevelt elk bugles,

A Roosevelt elk bugles, June 9, 2011. USDA Forest Service photo.

Male elk are known for bugling – they make lots of noise to assert their dominance and attract mates.

They also have large antlers, which they use to fight for those same reasons.

Elk shed their antlers every year, and regrow them every spring.

A herd of elk approach a snowy river bank

A herd of elk approach a snowy river bank on the Olympic National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Elk travel in herds, and are quick to defend against predators

They can run up to 35 miles per hour, though they rarely run from a fight.

If their vocal warnings are ignored, both male and female elk might attack by rearing up and delivering powerful kicks from their strong forelegs.

However, elk are susceptible to many diseases. These including parasites, chronic wasting disease, and a disease called Elk hoof disease.

Releasing elk at Sparks Lake on the Deschutes National Forest

Releasing elk at Sparks Lake on the Deschutes National Forest in 1934. USDA Forest Service file photo.

Elk cows leave their herd to give birth, which helps them protect their calves by avoiding attention from predators. They return only once their calves can keep up with the herd.

An elk mother will take care of one another elk’s calf, if the other mother is feeding.

Elk need a lot of food to survive.

Elk eat all kinds of grasses, shrubs, bark and leaves.

Some favorite foods for elk living in the Pacific Northwest include Aspen, red alder, and willow tree barks; shrubs, vines and bushes – including salal, wild rose, and Oregon grape, blackberry, huckleberry and currant; and other plants, including dandelion, clover, bear grass and fireweed.

Elk are valued by hunters as a game animal; their meat is lean, low in cholesterol and high in protein.

A herd of elk climb a bluff

A herd of elk climb a bluff on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Super strength, super speed, super brave… in many ways, elk aren’t just mighty creatures of the forest, they are superheroes!

What do you like most about elk? Check out these fun facts and links to learn even more about our November “Forest Feature”!

Did you know?

  • An elk’s antlers can grow as fast as 2.5 cm per day, and reach a total length of almost 4 feet long, and weigh up to 40 lbs.!
  • Elk look a bit like deer, but they are much bigger. Adult elk stand 4.5 to 5 feet at the shoulder. With their antlers, a male elk might stand up to 9 feet tall!
  • Elk shed their coats seasonally. Their winter coat is five times warmer than their summer coat, and lighter in color – which helps camouflage them against bare ground or snow.
  • A bull (male) elk can weigh 600-800 lbs. A cow (female) elk can weigh up to 500 lbs. 

Learn more about elk:

Videos:



Source information: Forest Features highlight a new Pacific Northwest species (or sometimes family, order, kingdom, or genus) each month, as part of the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s regional youth engagement strategy.

If you’d like more information about this topic, or other ways the Forest Service can help incorporate Pacific Northwest environmental education and forest science in your classroom, email us at YourNorthwestForests@fs.fed.us.

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