Elk Biology 101

Elk have been on this continent for many thousands of years and at one time numbered around 10 million. Today, there are about a million elk on the North American Continent.

Everyone has their favorite animal, but in the fall elk must reign supreme. Hunters in droves chase them with everything from sharpened sticks to muzzleloading or ultra-modern rifles, they are the number one attraction in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and Harriman State Park offers horseback rides to see and hear elk put on a show. Hearing bull elk bugle, seeing long lines of elk migrating to winter range or even just tracks in the snow are annual thrills not to be missed.

There is a lot more to know about elk than just what we can observe. Before European settlement, there were an estimated 10 million elk on the North American continent. They had conquered every habitat except tundra, true desert and the Gulf Coast. There were six subspecies of elk: Roosevelt—sometimes considered the largest in body size, the Tule elk—restricted to California and once thought to be extinct and also the smallest of the subspecies (which may be habitat related not genetic), The Rocky Mountain elk—by far the most common, Manitoban elk—found in North Dakota and the southern Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and north-central Alberta—larger than the Rocky Mountain subspecies but with smaller antlers. There were two other subspecies, the Eastern and Merriam’s elk, both hunted to extinction by 1880.

What most people don’t realize is that there are at least eight other subspecies of Cervus canadensis (sometimes written as Cervus elaphus—the debate still rages but “canadensis” seems to be winning in the scientific literature) in the world. They range from Russia’s Siberia through Mongolia, Tibet, China and even India. These are all subspecies but some of them look more like the Rocky Mountain elk we see than others.

Interestingly, the red deer of Europe is not a subspecies of elk as was once thought. Although this animal bears a resemblance to North American species, it is much smaller. Check out this link to see the difference https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDOV2emdjHU . The red deer stag (male) also doesn’t make a bugle or whistle like a bull elk. Rather, it’s sound is more like a roar.

Elk have been a conservation success story. At one point, even the Rocky Mountain elk was hunted until only the most remote canyons could shelter them. With the formation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, elk were eventually protected and quickly expanded as their natural predators were persecuted mercilessly. With the removal of wolves, mountain lions and bears, elk numbers in Yellowstone soared and this herd became the source of elk for nearly all attempts to reestablish them in the Rocky Mountains.

Over time, efforts to restore elk have led to the establishment of populations in numerous states including Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, Arkansas and Virginia. All of these are the repatriation of populations and not introductions. The Rocky Mountain subspecies is used as it may be the closest living relative to the extinct Eastern and Merriam’s elk.

Elk have also been introduced into New Zealand, Argentina and Chile. Due to their adaptable nature, in these places they have prospered too well, becoming pests and labeled as invasive. Some day we will learn that bringing in non-native species, even one as awesome as elk, is seldom a good idea, but apparently not yet.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho