Elk Biology 102

This bull elk has just developed his summer coat. His velvet antlers show promise of becoming a huge set by fall.

I will never forget the woman at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park who matter-of-factly explained to her children that the mule deer they were seeing on the lawn in front of the visitor center would grow up to be elk. Elk. Deer. Two different species. Deer will NEVER morph into elk.

Elk are large mammals. While a cow may tip the scales at 500 pounds, a Rocky Mountain subspecies bull will average 700 pounds, be five feet at the shoulder and eight feet from nose to tail. In my conservation officer days, I once checked a bull in a locker with a hanging weight that nearly reached that average, making him closer to 900 pounds on the hoof. Even newborn calves are surprisingly large at about 35 pounds.

Elk are members of the Cervidae family. On this continent they count white-tailed and mule deer, caribou and moose as their closest relatives. However, worldwide, there are 43-55 member species of this family (subject to taxonomic debate, of course).

Unlike deer and moose, elk are grazers. In the wintertime they may browse significantly on shrubs and even tree bark, but during the summer months they much prefer grasses and forbs (broadleafed herbaceous plants).

Plant-based diets, especially those containing grasses, are difficult to digest because of their high cellulose content. Like other members of this and several additional families, elk have a four-chambered stomach. The first stomach stores food and makes it available for re-chewing to break down the plant fibers. The other three stomachs process the food using diverse groups of microbes that specialize in breaking down cellulose.

Also, unlike deer and moose, twin elk calves are rare. However, elk cows are excellent mothers and survival is often high. Before wolves were reintroduced, bears were their most common predators, mostly on very young calves.  

All males of the member species of the cervid family have antlers with one exception, the water deer of China and Korea. However, elk may reign supreme. Moose antlers can weigh more but are so different that they are scarcely comparable. A large set of elk antlers may weigh 40 pounds or more and be four feet wide and tall.

Antlers are used for contests between bulls and not really for defense against predators. The right to breed is on the line though and the battles can be deadly. I witnessed such a battle in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park one evening. In the morning, one of the contestants lay dead, apparently from a mortal thrust of his opponent’s antler.

Elk have two distinct looks. During the summer both male and female elk wear a thin coat that keeps them cool in the warm weather. This coat is a rich coppery brown color with the appearance of a velour fabric. In autumn, the summer coat is replaced with a thick warm tan-colored coat. The rump patch is always a creamy white and earned them their Native American name of wapiti, meaning something like, “white butt”.

Before European settlement, elk in the millions occupied most North American habitats. They are truly habitat generalists, although at one time some scientists speculated that elk were plains animals and only occupied the mountains when driven there by hunting pressure. Personally, I don’t buy that line of reasoning. Re-introductions throughout the country are reestablishing elk in habitats from open grasslands to deep dark deciduous forests, proving them highly adaptable.

From elk bugles rising on a foggy autumn morning to spotted elk calves scampering behind their mothers through a flower-strewn meadow on a summer day, elk are one of the animals that put the wild in wildness. Without them our woods and prairies would be something less.


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