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Elk Population By State (Estimates and Info)

The Elk (Cervus canadensis), also known as wapiti, is among the largest land mammals in North America.  There are currently four subspecies of elk living in the United States today, with a total population estimated to be between 1 and 1.2 million. The population of Elk varies greatly in the U.S. from east to west and state to state. That brings us to the topic of this article, where we will dive into what the elk population is in each U.S. state, any notable areas to find them, and also which states do not have any elk.

U.S. states with Elk populations

Below we will list some info about Elk populations in each U.S. state. We’ll talk about the populations that are estimated in each state as well as where they can be found and any interesting facts about Elk that are specific to the particular state.

First let’s omit some states from the list. The following 20 states currently do not have breeding populations of elk, although some may allow elk to be raised on private ranches. The elk population is growing and expanding in the U.S. which means that there’s always a possibility of elk moving in from neighboring states. Many states have also implemented successful reintroduction programs, so some of these states may have elk in the future.

However at the time of writing this, there is believed to be a breeding elk population in 30 of the 50 U.S. states.

20 U.S. states that do not have Elk populations:

  1. Alabama – extirpated since the early 1800s
  2. Connecticut – extirpated by mid 1700s to early 1800s
  3. Delaware – only evidence of elk in this state is prehistoric
  4. Florida- no evidence that elk occurred in Florida naturally
  5. Georgia – it is debated whether there were ever elk in Georgia
  6. Hawaii – there have never been elk on Hawaii
  7. Illinois – extirpated between 1800 – 1850
  8. Indiana – extirpated
  9. Louisiana – extirpated
  10. Maine – unclear whether or not elk occurred here
  11. Maryland – extirpated
  12. Massachusetts – unclear whether or not elk occurred here, only one historical record of elk
  13. Mississippi – extirpated by 1900
  14. New Hampshire – elk may never have lived in New Hampshire
  15. New Jersey – extirpated
  16. New York – extirpated, last elk recorded in 1847
  17. Ohio – extirpated
  18. Rhode Island – unlikely to have had a population at any time
  19. South Carolina – extirpated
  20. Vermont – unclear on whether or not elk occurred here

Many of these 20 states had a population of elk at one time, as you can see from the map below. Historically elk ranged across much of the country, but the over hunting and habitat loss that came with the European settlers nearly wiped them out by the early 1900’s.

 

Elk population in 30 U.S. states

The following population estimates were taken from state government websites and other authoritative sources. They are accurate to the best of our knowledge.

State NameElk Population
Alabamanone
Alaska1,300
Arizona35,000
Arkansas500
California12,700
Colorado303,000
Connecticutnone
Delawarenone
Floridanone
Georgianone
Hawaiinone
Idaho120,000
Illinoisnone
Indiananone
Iowanone
Kansas
Kentucky16,000
Louisiananone
Mainenone
Marylandnone
Massachusettsnone
Michigan870 - 1,700
Minnesota130 - 250
Mississippinone
Missouri275 - 300
Montana140,000 - 175,000
Nebraska> 2,500
Nevada17,500
New Hampshirenone
New Jerseynone
New Mexico104,000
New Yorknone
North Carolina200 - 225
North Dakota700 - 1,000
Ohionone
Oklahoma5,000
Oregon133,000
Pennsylvania1,400
Rhode Islandnone
South Carolinanone
South Dakota6,500 - 8,500
Tennessee450 - 600
Texas3,500
Utah83,000
Vermontnone
Virginia250
Washington45,000 - 50,000
West Virginia100
Wisconsin515
Wyoming109,000
*Populations estimates are believed to be accurate but not guaranteed as of 01/2021

1. Alabama

There have not been any natural populations of elk in Alabama since the early 1800s. For a brief period in 1916 a small group of 55 Rocky Mountain elk were brought into the state by the Department of Game and Fish. They were released in five counties to attempt to reestablish the population. Due to various problems such as disease, poaching and crop damage, this did not work out and the last of the elk was reported killed by 1921. It is still occasionally discussed by the Department of Conservation but as of 2024 there are no plans to try this reintroduction experiment again. You can read more about the “Alabama Elk Experiment” at the DCNR page. 

2. Alaska

Elk are not native to the state of Alaska, however in the 1920’s some were brought into the state as ranch animals. A re-introductory effort was made in the 1950’s with some elk from Pacific coast herds (Rocky Mountain elk and Roosevelt elk). It was not successful on the mainland, however some elk population was able to establish itself on Raspberry Island and Afognak Island, as well as some of the other islands in the Aleutian island chain. The most recent estimations we could find said there are about 900 elk total on Rasberry and Afognak Island, and another 400 on other islands, mainly Etolin and Zarembo Island. This puts the elk population total in Alaska around 1,300 animals.

Range map from Alaska Department of Game & Fish, adfg.alaska.gov

3. Arizona

When elk population had dwindled in the early 1900’s, 83 elk from Yellowstone were transplanted to the White Mountains region of Arizona. This was successful and the population has grown steadily, so much so that elk hunting is now a big sport in Arizona. An Arizona vacation guide said herds “can commonly be seen in the areas around Flagstaff, Williams, Payson, Herber Overgaard, Show Low, Pinetop Lakeside, Greer, Alpine and generally any forested area” and typical habitats include the White Mountains area, Mogollon Rim and Kaibab Forest. They are also found in the ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper forests on the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The most recent population estimates we could find suggest that there are approximately 35,000 elk in Arizona. 

4. Arkansas

The eastern elk was once native to the pine and hardwood forests of Arkansas, however the species was extinct by the mid 1800’s. After an failed reintroduction attempt from 1933-1950, another attempt was made in 1981. 112 elk from Colorado and Nebraska were brought into the Buffalo National River area. The elk herd is monitored and the last estimate was about 500 elk in Arkansas. Planning and sustaining proper habitat for the elk in the Buffalo River area continues to be an important part of maintaining a healthy elk herd.

A great place to see the elk in Arkansas is “the six miles of Arkansas 43 and Arkansas 21 in Boxley Valley “ at dusk and dawn, especially in the autumn.

History of elk in Arkansas

5. California

California is home to three subspecies of elk, the Roosevelt elk, the Rocky Mountain elk, and the tule Elk which is found exclusively in California. It is thought that at one time tule elk occupied much of central California, at least half a million strong.

Due to hunting and increasing settlement, by 1870 very few tule elk remained. Through the introduction of laws and diligent conservation, they were saved from extinction. You can read more about the history of the tule elk here.

Current estimates put the elk population in California at about 5,700 tule elk, 5,500 Roosevelt elk, and about 1,500 Rocky Mountain elk. This puts the total elk population in California at approximately 12,700 elk.

Estimated elk population numbers in California 1965-2017, California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

6. Colorado

Colorado boasts the largest population of elk in North America with an estimated 303,000 as of 2022. During the Colorado Gold Rush of the mid 1800’s the elk were over hunted and populations declined sharply. The first hunting regulations were put in place in the early 1900’s, and the Forest Service estimated in 1910 that Colorado’s elk population was down to 500-1,000 animals. Through regulations and halts on hunting, and reintroduction of 350 elk from Wyoming, populations began to recover and today elk are found in abundance in Colorado.

7. Connecticut

The eastern elk was once present in Connecticut, however due to overhunting and habitat loss, they were extirpated from the state by the mid 1700’s to 1800. There is no breeding population of elk in Connecticut today.

8. Delaware

There is currently no breeding population of elk in Delaware. Prehistoric (2500 years ago) evidence of elk has been found in Delaware, however scientists believe they were gone from the state far before European settlers arrived.

9. Florida

There is no fossil record to indicate that Elk have occurred naturally in Florida. There were a small number of elk brought to Florida for the filming of a movie in the late 1960’s. These elk escaped and began to breed locally, but it is unlikely that they would have been able to spread much further. The only mention of this small introduced population we could find was a small herd of 10 seen in the 1990’s on Buck Island Breeding Ranch, but there are no credible recent records of them occurring in Florida.

10. Georgia

Georgia currently does not have a breeding population of elk. It is a bit of a debate as to if there historically were ever eastern elk in the state. Some people have claimed to have spotted a few elk here and there in the very northern part of the state in recent years, but those sightings aren’t confirmed. Since Georgia’s neighbors to the north Tennessee and North Carolina do have elk populations, it’s likely that elk from those states occasionally pass through Georgia. We could not find any mention of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources considering any plans to move elk into the state.

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11. Hawaii

Since Hawaii is such a remote island chain, all large mammals that could not fly or swim there on their own, have been introduced by humans. There are 8 big game species on the islands that have been introduced at various times: blackbuck antelope, axis deer, spanish goat, hawaiian ibex, black hawaiian sheep, mouflon sheep, vancouver bulls and wild boar, but no elk. Even though there are no wild elk in the Hawaiian islands, there is a cattle ranch that is raising a few and using their meat for burgers. That’s right, you can get an elk burger on Maui at the Ulupalakua Ranch Store.

12. Idaho

Elk have been present in Idaho for a long time. The population has had ups and downs over the last 200 years and has also shifted in north, central and southern Idaho. Today there is a healthy population estimated at more than 120,000 elk. The Idaho Department of Fish & Game has a very comprehensive elk management plan to monitor populations and regulate hunting, which has become very popular in the state.

13. Illinois

There is not currently any breeding population of wild elk in Illinois. They did once inhabit the state, but were extirpated between 1800- 1850. Some private ranches in the state raise elk, and the occasional elk sighting that is reported is attributed to animals that have wandered off these ranches. However, a large bull elk that was captured and collared in Wisconsin made headlines when it traveled more than 240 miles to Illinois and through the Chicago area.

In the late 1990s re-introduction of elk was discussed and a habitat survey done, but no plans to go forward with reintroduction of elk to Illinois are in effect at the time of writing this article.

14. Indiana

Indiana does not have any population of wild elk. Many hunters would like to see an attempt at reintroducing elk to the state, however the department of natural resources does not currently have any plans to do so. Part of the issue may be lack of viable habitat, as finding large tracks of contiguous woods in Indiana is difficult. The occasional elk that is spotted in the state usually has escaped from a farm or could be from the population of introduced elk in neighboring Kentucky.

15. Iowa

Elk were extirpated from Iowa by the late 1800’s. At one time it is believed the elk population was even higher than the bison population in the state. While there are no known breeding populations in the state, there have been an increase in sightings of the odd elk in the western part of the state and these elk are likely travelers from Nebraska or South Dakota.

16. Kansas

Elk were extirpated from Kansas by the late 1800’s like many other states. However a small herd was kept at the Maxwell Wildlife area, which is a 2200 acre enclosed wildlife refuge. Elk were taken from Maxwell in a planned reintroduction effort at Fort Riley Military Installation and Cimarron National Grasslands during the 1980’s and early 90’s. Not much has been published about the elk population in recent years, however in the 2000’s data from elk sightings suggested that small herds of elk are sometimes present in multiple other areas of the state. A research paper published in 2006 estimated 120 animals. We weren’t able to find a more recent total but it would likely be < 500 today.

Kansas elk range map, ksoutdoors.com

17. Kentucky

The eastern elk was eradicated from Kentucky by the 1880’s. However Kentucky is one state that took elk reintroduction seriously and the Kentucky Elk Management Plan began to bring Rocky Mountain elk into the state starting in 1997. The group of about 1500 elk that had been introduced by the end of the last stocking in 2002 has grown to approximately 16,000 elk by 2024. This gives Kentucky the largest elk population east of the Mississippi River. The elk are focused mainly on sixteen counties located on the Cumberland Plateau.

18. Louisiana

There is an interesting article about a man in Louisiana that hit an elk with his truck, and the article said that some captive elk were “set free” in 2005 when hurricane Katrina hit the and demolished fences on the elk enclosures, releasing them to the wild. Aside from these few randomly roaming elk, we did not see any mention of Louisiana having plans to reintroduce the species to the state. In fact, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is very concerned about chronic wasting disease and has strict regulations about importing outside cervid (deer family) animals or meat into the state.

19. Maine

There is conflicting information on whether or not Elk ever occurred in Maine or other parts of New England. However, there have reportedly been elk bone fragments found in shell heaps in the state. 

20. Maryland

Maryland currently does not have a breeding population of elk. Apparently the state was seriously considering a reintroduction plan, however opposition from local counties has shelved the idea for the near future. Some of the arguments against elk reintroduction were fear of increased car accidents, damage to crops and disease spread to livestock. With elk in neighboring states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia though, it’s possible they could start reestablishing themselves in the future.

21. Massachusetts

Like the rest of New England, the history of elk in the state is a little unclear. There is only a single record of elk occurring historically in Worcester County in 1732. The occasional Mass resident reports a sighting, like this person who thinks they saw two on Mount Greylock, but nothing has been confirmed. There are currently no plans for reintroduction of elk to Massachusetts.

22. Michigan

Elk, which were extirpated from the state in the late 1800’s, have made a comeback in Michigan. In 1918 seven elk were brought back into the state and today that little group continues to grow. Today you can visit them in Pigeon River Country State Forest in the northeast Lower Peninsula. The elk population in Michigan is estimated at  between 870 and ~1700 elk and this population continues to grow. 

Elk Viewing Map, Michigan DNR, michigan.org

23. Minnesota

Minnesota is another state that lost their elk to hunting and settlement by the early 1900’s. Revival effort started to be made as early as 1913 by bringing elk in from other states. Introduced elk weren’t able to successfully establish a breeding population until after 1935. In the early 1980’s elk from Manitoba began to cross the boarder to spend spring and summer in Kittson and Roseau counties. Elk are only found in the Northwestern part of the state. According to a survey in 2020 the total elk population in Minnesota is around 130 – 250 elk. There are apparently plans to begin to reintroduce Elk to the Northeastern part of the state to bolster the overall population in Minnesota.

You can find a lot of good information about elk management in Minnesota on their Department of Natural Resources page.

24. Mississippi

Mississippi has no population of breeding elk. It was once home to elk, and likely the subspecies Eastern elk. But Eastern elk went extinct due to over hunting by the end of the 1800’s. We could not find any plans to reintroduce elk into the state, but perhaps that will change in the future.

25. Missouri

Missouri is one of the more recent states to begin an elk reintroduction program. In 2011, 34 elk from Kentucky were brought into the Peck Ranch Conservation Area. Through some additional stocking and natural breeding, the population in Missouri today is approximately between 275 and 300 elk. The current goal of the Missouri Conservation Department is to get the herd to between 400 and 500 individuals.

Missouri Elk Report Map, mdc.mo.gov

26. Montana

Elk were historically plentiful in Montana, but with European settlers their numbers declined significantly. In 1910 there were only about 5,000 elk remaining in the northwest corner of the state. Elk were periodically brought in from Yellowstone in an effort to boost the population, and it worked. Today elk are found in much of western and central Montana, and the current population is thought to be about 140 – 175,000 elk and growing. 

Montana Elk Distribution, fieldguide.mt.gov

27. Nebraska

The native elk of Nebraska were extirpated in the state by 1900. They began to reappear in the state during the 1950’s and 60’s and slowly established a population . The herds are mainly located in western and central Nebraska. A report from 2021 states that there are over 2,500 elk in Nebraska

28. Nevada

Reintroduction of elk to Nevada in the mid to late 1900’s has been a huge success. We couldn’t find many specifics of the history except to say the population grew quickly year after year. The most current estimate found was 17,500 in 2015, and it is unclear what the population looks like today. 

29. New Hampshire

There is currently no breeding population of elk in New Hampshire. According to an interesting article in the Wildlife Journal, elk are not native to the state. A few were introduced in 1903 as a gift, and again in 1933. The population grew locally, enough to become a nuisance to crops. The state allowed a two day hunting spree to bring the numbers down. 20 or so elk were thought to have remained by 1955, and it is believed they were slowly hunted down to zero.

30. New Jersey

There are no wild elk found in New Jersey today, and we did not find any evidence of planned reintroduction efforts. However since neighboring Pennsylvania does have an elk population, it is possible a roaming elk or two may cross the border occasionally.

Almost all of the elk had been extirpated from New Mexico by the early 1900’s. Reintroduction efforts with Yellowstone elk began as early as 1910 and finished in 1966. The elk have flourished. There are thought to be approximately 104,000 elk in New Mexico and the population remains stable. Some of the highest densities of elk are found in the San Juan Mountains near Chama, the Jemez and Sierra Nacimiento, Mount Taylor, Gila National Forest, and Carson National forest. One of the most popular elk viewing spots is the Valle Vidal. Unfortunately the elk sub species that was originally native to New Mexico, Merriam’s elk, is extinct.

32. New York

It is believed the last elk was killed in New York around 1847. Several attempts at reestablishing a small population were made between 1900 – 1940, mainly in the Adirondack region. These attempts were ultimately unsuccessful due to poaching and disease. In the late 1990s a report was released that stated there were three areas in the state that could feasibly sustain a small population of elk, the Adirondacks, the Catskills and and area in the south western part of the state. As of today no reintroduction effort has been planned.

33. North Carolina

It is thought the last native elk in North  Carolina was killed in the late 1700’s. An elk restoration was initiated in 2001-2002 when 52 elk from the Manitoban subspecies were released into the Cataloochee Valley area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  Today, 200-225 elk reside in the state, with some of that population straying outside of the park boundaries. For more information see the North Carolina wildlife resources commission page.

34. North Dakota

According to the state’s game and fish page, elk are located on the Little Missouri National Grasslands, on and around Killdeer Mountain, and in Cavalier County. Elk in North Dakota were doing so well around 2010 that the state felt the population was becoming too large in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and 900 elk were removed. We weren’t able to find any specific recent population numbers, and this may be because a population distribution and monitoring effort that began in 2019 is still ongoing. Pervious estimates suggest approximately 700 – 1000 elk in the state. The larger portion of the population continues to be in the western part of the state, especially west of the Little Missouri River.

35. Ohio

Ohio hasn’t had a population of wild elk in over 175 years. Many conservationists and hunters alike are hoping for a reintroduction program in the state. Ohio State University performed a feasibility study and found three main areas that they believe could support a reintroduction: Wayne National Forest, Shawnee State Forest and the reclaimed strip mine areas. Ohio’s priority remains their deer management program, but perhaps elk could be in the state’s future. It is also not impossible that elk from neighboring states, especially Kentucky, may wander into Ohio.

36. Oklahoma

According to a quote from the Wildlife Department made in a 2019 news article, the current elk population in Oklahoma is about 5,000. Elk have been documented in over 30 out of 77 counties in the state. The largest free ranging elk herd in the state is in the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge. Other large herds can be found at the Pushmataha, Cookson Hills, Spavinaw, and Cherokee wildlife management areas. The state has managed annual hunting to keep the population within a reasonable range, since there are not many natural predators of the elk left in Oklahoma.

37. Oregon

There are two subspecies of elk found in Oregon. The Roosevelt elk and the Rocky Mountain elk. The Roosevelt elk are found mostly in the western part of the state in the Cascade and coastal ranges. The Rocky Mountain elk stay mainly in the eastern part of the state with a large group in the Blue Mountains. Estimates from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife page put the population of Roosevelt elk at about 59,000 and Rocky Mountain elk at more than 74,000. This brings the total elk population in Oregon to approximately 133,000, but populations are likely growing.

38. Pennsylvania

The last native elk was reported in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. In the early 1900’s reintroduction efforts began by bringing a small number of elk in from Yellowstone. A careful balancing act of hunting, protection and land use have supported populations up and down in the state. Today there are thought to be about about 1,400 elk in Pennsylvania.

39. Rhode Island

There is no breeding population of elk in Rhode Island and it is unclear if elk have ever naturally occurred in Rhode Island. A local game preserve is trying to get a bill passed that would allow elk to be imported onto private land for the purposes of hunting. As of writing this article it does not appear that bill has passed. The Rhode Island DEM is very concerned about any imported cervids (members of the deer family) potential to introduce chronic wasting disease to the local populations of animals in the deer.

40. South Carolina

South Carolina does not currently have a population of elk. However there are elk next door, in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina. In September of 2020 the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources confirmed an elk from the Smoky Mountain herd had wandered down into the Greenville Watershed. The state confirmed that they do not currently have plans to establish a population of elk in South Carolina. But it will be interesting to see what the SCDNR decides to do if more elk continue to cross the border.

41. South Dakota

After being extirpated in the late 1800s, elk have been successfully reestablished in South Dakota. In the most recent state elk status report, estimates put the elk population in the Black Hills at approximately 6,000 – 8,000, and the population in Custer State Park at approximately 500-600. Small herds also exist on prairies in Fall River, Meade, Butte, Bennett and Gregory counties.

42. Tennessee

Native elk held on in Tennessee until 1865. A restoration plan with elk from Alberta took place in 2001 – 2008 in Scott, Morgan, Anderson, Claiborne and Campbell counties. This was the designated elk restoration zone. Hunting was prohibited until 2009 to help the population grow which it has been doing gradually. Today there are about 450-600 elk in Tennessee.

Tennessee Elk Restoration Area, tn.gov

43. Texas

The history around elk in Texas is a little bit unclear, they are thought to have occurred in Texas naturally in mostly the western part of the state. However, these naturally occurring populations were wiped out following colonization of Texas from over-hunting and spread of disease from domesticated animals. In the 1920’s, private landowners in Texas actually took it upon themselves to being reintroducing elk to the state. This reintroduction seemed to be successful and elk actually were reclassified as “non-game or exotic” species due to their impacts to native Bighorn Sheep populations. Today, elk are mostly constrained to northern and western Texas and there are thought to be at least 3,500 elk in the state.

44. Utah

Utah has an estimated elk population of around 83,000 animals. They are most common in the mountainous areas, spending the summer in the forests and meadows and winter in the valleys. Utah has seen a rapid increase in elk population between the mid 1970’s and early 1990’s. This is attributed to the availability of habitat. Today, the population growth is more stable due to careful monitoring and harvesting. The ideal population in Utah is 80,000 which likely will prompt the release of more hunting permits in the following years. Elk are the top big game species in Utah next to mule deer.

45. Vermont

There are no wild elk living in Vermont today. There are small populations kept on private lands, and sometimes these escape like this story of 16 farm elk that got loose in Derby in 2017. We did not see any talks to reintroduce elk, and deer remain the main cervids of the state.

46. Virginia

The last known native elk in Virginia was killed in 1855. In 1919 Virginia did attempt an elk reintroduction and released an unknown number of the animals into several counties. Two small herds held on for many years, but ultimately they dwindled and the last elk died around 1970. However the rising elk population in neighboring Kentucky began to spill over into Virginia in the late 1990’s. This natural expansion plus the addition of 71 relocated elk, puts Virginia’s elk population of over 250 today. The elk are mainly found in Buchcanan, Dickenson and Wise counties.

47. Washington

Washington has an estimated 45,500 – 50,000 Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk. The Roosevelt elk tend to be found in the western part of the state, and the Rocky Mountain elk in the east. There 10 different populations of Elk in Washington, all of which have their own tailored management goals. These 10 herds are found in Yakima, Mount St Helens, Olympic, Willapa Hills, Colockum, Blue Mountains, North Rainier, South Rainier, Selkirk and North Cascades.

48. West Virginia

Until recently, elk had been extirpated from West Virginia for more than 100 years. A restoration effort began in earnest in 2016 when a small number of elk were imported from Kentucky, and then another small group in 2018 from Arizona. These elk were brought into the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County. The current population estimate for elk in West Virginia as of winter 2024 is 100  animals.

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49. Wisconsin

Habitat loss and overhunting wiped out the elk from Wisconsin by the 1880s. Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in the northwest portion of Wisconsin received the first 25 reintroduced elk in 1995. The main elk herd is still there today, with a smaller herd in the central portion of the state at Black River State Forest. As of 2020 Wisconsin population is estimated at about 515 elk.

50. Wyoming

According to this article from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in January of 2024 the estimated population of elk in Wyoming is 109,000. There are thought to be 35 distinct elk herds in the state. The largest elk herds are the Laramie Peak/Muddy Mountain herd and the Jackson Hole herd. The state reassesses population sizes and demographics every 5 years to determine whether or not action needs to be taken to manage population sizes.


A quick look at Elk

Elk are one of the largest members of the deer family, and are one of the largest land mammals in all of North America. Elk are found in many countries around the world, and have proven to be an adaptable species when introduced to new areas. Sometimes they are too adaptable, and threaten to out-compete native wildlife for food and land. Elk were once plentiful across much of the United States, but with the arrival of European settlers and no regulation on hunting, they were nearly wiped out. Some sub species of elk have been able to make a comeback through restoration and protection of habitat, and careful management and reintroduction efforts by state wildlife authorities. However two subspecies, the Eastern Elk and the Merriam’s elk, have been extinct for over 100 years.

Size

Elk have stocky bodies with thin legs and a short tails. The different sub species vary in size with the Roosevelt elk being the largest. Height to the shoulder can range from 2 ft 6 inches to 4 ft 11 inches. Length from nose to tail averages 5 ft 3 inches to 8 ft 10 inches. Male elk are larger than the females, with an average weight of 392 – 1096 pounds to the females 375 – 644 pounds.

Only the males have antlers, which they grow and shed each year.  While they are growing they are covered with a soft layer of skin called “velvet”. The velvet sheds off in the summer when the antlers are fully grown, and the antlers themselves will fall off later in winter.

Diet

Elk are mainly grazers that like to feed on native grasses. They also supplement this with tree bark in the winter, and flowering plants and tree sprouts in the summer. Elk eat about 20 pounds worth of vegetation a day. Because of this, large herds can have a serious impact on grasslands and forests. They have a four-chambered stomach that allows them to digest all of this fibrous vegetation.

Habitat

Elk can live in a wide range of habitats, with the most important factor being consistent availability of food for grazing. They often can be found in mountainous terrain. In North America the only areas they have not successfully adapted to are deserts, tundra, or the Gulf Coast region. In the fall they grow thick coats of hair which allow them to live in very cold climates. In the summer they rub up against trees to help remove this coat. It is believed that today’s North American subspecies are descendants from elk that lived in  Beringia, which was the area that used to connect the two continents of Asia and North America during the Pleistocene epoch. Elk often move into areas of higher elevation during the spring, and move back down into valley’s during winter.

Mating

For most of the year, the females and males in a herd will stay in separate groups. During the mating season (also called the “rut”) of late summer to early fall, the two groups will come together. The males, also called bulls, will compete for access to females. They try to intimidate each other with loud vocalizations and displaying their antlers. This vocalization, which can sound like a screeching high pitched whistle, is called “bugling” and can be heard over large distances. If these methods are not successful in getting one of the males to back down, they will use their large antlers to fight each other.

Males will have a harem of 20 or more females, which they defend from other males. He will “herd” the females to keep them within his range, and court them until they are ready to mate. Females normally produce one offspring, and the gestation period is about 240- 260 days. While giving birth a female will isolate herself and the baby from the main herd for about two weeks. The young elk are fully weaned off mothers milk after two months.

Migration

As we mentioned above, many elk will move to higher elevations in the spring, and back down to lower elevations in the winter. With large herds containing thousands of elk, this can be quite an impressive migration! One of the best known migrations in the United States is when elk from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem travel in numbers of over 200,000 strong south into Jackson, Wyoming. In Jackson they will remain for several months on the National Elk Refuge.

Threats to Elk

Like with many other species in the deer family, perhaps the largest threat facing Elk in North America is the rampant spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Chronic Wasting Disease spreads via bodily fluids (saliva, urine, feces, etc.) through direct or indirect contact. In other words, elk and another deer species can pick up CWD by making contact with soil or surfaces where other elk were present that were infected with CWD. Chronic wasting disease is fatal and leads to the breakdown of brain tissue, emaciation, loss of bodily functions and then death. Thirty-two states in the U.S. have reported the presence of CWD, and with how easily it spreads it is likely to spread to all states in the contiguous U.S.

Additionally, elk are also threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation from the spread of urbanization and creation of roads. In fact, thousands of elk are struck on roadways each year which not only harms the elk but also often harms the passengers in the vehicles and results in $100,000’s in damages. 


 Subspecies of Elk

According to Wikipedia there are 6 subspecies of North American Elk. In this article we only discussed these North America elk, however there are eight other subspecies found in other parts of the world such as Siberia and Asia.

North American Subspecies

  • Roosevelt’s elk: Pacific Northwest into northern California. Also introduced to Alaska and British Columbia
  • Tule elk: found only in California
  • Manitoban elk: midwestern United States (especially North Dakota) and the southern Canadian Prairies
  • Rocky Mountain elk: Along the Rocky Mountain Range and surrounding areas of the west. Often used in reintroduction efforts in eastern states.
  • Eastern elk: eastern United States and Canada, extinct
  • Merriam’s elk: southwestern United States, extinct

Tips for safe elk viewing

While an elk may seem less threatening than a grizzly bear, you should still exercise caution when around these large animals. Elk can cover short distances very quickly, and can feel threatened if you are too close. They can also be more aggressive during the mating season. And don’t forget those large antlers, you don’t want to tangle with that!

  • Pull off roadways onto a shoulder
  • Stay close to your vehicle
  • If an elk approaches you, retreat to your vehicle. If you are not near a vehicle, back away and give the animal room to pass you
  • Keep dogs in the car, or at least on a leash
  • Maintain a safe distance, about 75 feet. If the elk stops grazing or changes it’s behavior, you are too close. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to get a closer look while remaining further away
  • Never feed elk or leave food unattended
  • Dusk and dawn are prime viewing times
Group of female elk as seen from a road turn-off in Grand Teton National Park

Best places to view North American elk

There are many great places to view elk in the U.S., especially in states that are heavily populated. Here are a few of the most well known:

  • National Elk Refuge, Wyoming: This boasts the largest wintering concentration of elk in the world, over 200,000, where elk from neighboring states will congregate during the winter months. Just remember to visit in the winter, best viewing between December and April.
  • Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: A large population live within the park and are a common animal to see, along with Bison. Some of the best viewing spots for elk are Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: One of the best spots is the Trail Ridge Road, a stretch of nine miles that covers a large grazing area. Some other park hot spots are Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park and Upper Beaver Meadows on the east side, and Harbison Meadow, Holzwarth Meadow and the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side.
  • Baniff National Park, Alberta Canada: Banff Springs Golf Course, Bow Valley Parkway, Tunnel Mountain Drive, Vermilion Lakes Drive.
  • Great Smokey Mountain National Park, North Carolina: For a spot east of the Mississippi River, try the Smokies. Most of the elk reside in the Cataloochee Valley, which is in the southeastern section of the park.

 

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