Elk are recognized as the same species as Asian and European red deer. Experts believe that elk crossed an ancient land bridge from Asia and made their home in the vast forests, mountains and plains in North America. Like buffalo, elk became an important source of food and clothing as people came to inhabit the land. Throughout history elk have been hunted for their quality lean meat. Elk also thrived throughout North America until Europeans began settling the continent. The settlers relentlessly hunted elk for meat and also killed the animals that ate crops, damaged property, or seemed to compete with livestock. They affected elk most seriously by converting natural habitats and migration corridors into agricultural land, home sites and cities. People began noticing the decline of elk populations as early as 1785. Elk populations continued to decline as the settlements grew and spread. The remaining animals were almost wiped out when, in the late 1800s, market demands encouraged people to kill elk for a few prized products — the hide, antlers and sometimes just the canine teeth. Elk canines are called ivories and have been sought by different groups of people in North America for use as jewelry and pendants. Naturalists, hunters and other concerned people were beginning to realize the importance of the natural resources they might be losing forever. Fortunately, their demand for regulated hunting seasons, state and provincial wildlife areas, national wildlife refuges, national parks and national forests has helped ensure the survival of the remaining elk and other wildlife.
Elk – The Next Generation
The rut or breeding season for elk begins abruptly about the beginning of September each year. The majestic bugling of the males signals their availability for breeding. Females are assembled into harems of 25 to 30 animals by the largest and most powerful bulls. The bulls fight and compete vigorously for the right to mate with the cows.
Elk calves (fawns) are born after a gestation of 250 to 255 days. Elk calves can usually stand within 30 minutes of birth and run after an hour or two. Elk fawns are hiders and seek secluded hiding places for the first few days of life. Elk cows often remain some distance away from their fawns to avoid drawing predators to them.
Elk calves grow rapidly and are weaned at 4 to 5 months of age. Elk females produce a rich, high fat content milk (7-8% fat) which allows the calves to grow quickly.
Elk are mixed feeders. They prefer to make up about 80% of their daily intake from grass forage and the rest as browse. In the spring and fall, elk will eat leaves, new buds and shoots and even the bark from young trees.