Elk (Cervus canadensis)


Food and Feeding Behavior

  • Elk require large amounts of food because of their body size and herding tendencies.
  • In spring and summer, when food is plentiful, elk are mainly grazers—eating grasses, sedges, and a variety of flowering plants.
  • In fall, elk increasingly become browsers, feeding on sprouts and branches of shrubs and trees, including conifers as a last resort when snow covers other plants.
  • During fall and winter, elk continue to eat grasses when these are available and not covered by deep snow.
  • Like deer and moose, elk are ruminants. They initially chew their food just enough to swallow it. This food is stored in a stomach called the “rumen.” From there, the food is regurgitated, then re-chewed before being swallowed again, entering a second stomach where digestion begins. Then it passes into third and fourth stomachs before finally entering the intestine.

Cover and Range Needs

  • Elk are hardy animals that have few physiological needs for cover. They do, however, use cover during extreme weather, to avoid hunters, or when they are harassed. Cover also conceals newborn calves from predators.
  • Ideal elk habitat includes productive grasslands, meadows, or clearcuts, interspersed with closed-canopy forests.
  • Year-round ranges for Rocky Mountain elk vary from 2,500 to 10,000 acres, and usually include distinct summering and wintering areas.
  • Year-round ranges for Roosevelt elk are smaller, usually 1,500 to 4,000 acres, because they are generally found where the climate is less severe and where food and cover are more readily available.

Social Structure

  • Elk are social animals, living in herds for much of the year. During spring, summer, and winter, elk tend to split into cow-calf herds and bull herds.
  • Cow-calf herds are usually led by older, experienced cows and may include adolescent bulls.
  • During the mating season (rut) in early fall, adult and subadult bulls find and temporarily join cow herds. The larger, more aggressive bulls try to gather harems of cows, which they defend against competing bulls (Fig. 2).
  • Harems range in size from 3 to 4 cows to as many as 20 to 25 cows. Bulls socially dominate the cows within their harems, but the movements of these breeding groups are still determined by older, lead cows.
  • Adolescent males form small bachelor groups or patrol the edge of breeding harems.
  • Breeding activities cease by mid-October; bulls usually leave the cow-calf groups then and the herds disperse into wintering areas.


  • Mating occurs during the fall rut, and successful bulls breed with numerous females each year.
  • Once the rut begins, mature bulls challenge each other vocally, emitting high-pitched calliope-like whistles, or “bugles.”
  • Cows have an eight- to nine month pregnancy, which results in the birth of a single spotted calf in late May or early June.
  • The timing of birth seems to optimize calf survival by being late enough that the risk of cold, inclement weather has passed, but early enough so that there is considerable time for calves to grow before the onset of next winter.
  • Just before giving birth, a cow elk will leave the herd and select a birthing place. Because predators would easily detect large groups of elk, cow elk appear to avoid grouping with other elk until their calves are large enough (usually about two weeks of age) to run effectively to escape predators.
  • Other cows sometimes tend calves when mothers are feeding; a mother may nurse her calf for up to nine months.
  • Calves grow quickly and lose their spots by summer’s end. By the onset of winter, a calf that entered the world weighing 35 pounds may tip the scales at 225 to 250 pounds.
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Mortality and Longevity

  • Most elk are physically declining by age 16, and a 20-year-old wild cow elk is very old. Bulls generally do not live as long as cows, rarely surpassing 12 years.
  • Hunting, automobiles, predation, and habitat loss all take their toll on elk populations.
  • With a superb sense of smell, excellent hearing, and a top running speed of 35 mph, elk are well equipped to avoid the few predators capable of bringing them down.
  • Cougars prey upon adult elk; calves may also fall victim to bears, bobcats, domestic dogs, and coyotes.

The Washington Predator-Prey Project is currently underway to determine the impact of predators like wolves and cougars on elk populations, as well as both white-tailed deer and mule deer.

Viewing Elk

Elk are primarily crepuscular (active mostly at dawn and dusk), so early morning and late evening are the best times to observe them. But when temperatures soar or when they are harassed, elk may become more active at night.

When disturbance levels are low and temperatures mild, elk may be observed feeding in short bouts throughout the day. When not hunted, elk adapt well to humans and find lawns and golf courses excellent places to graze. A good time of year to observe elk is in fall. In late September and October, bulls are battling each other over females and are not as concerned about being seen. This is a fascinating time to observe elk because the shrill bugles of the bulls can often be heard near dawn and dusk.

Leafless trees allow greater visibility, and when it is raining there is less chance of being heard crunching through an area. However, be aware of open hunting seasons during this time of year and wear bright orange clothing for your safety. Also, care needs to be taken when around adult male elk during the mating season, particularly in areas where they are accustomed to people, such as national parks.

The best way to view wild elk is to find a meadow, clearcut, or other open grassland elk have been using and to wait quietly nearby. Because elk have a keen sense of smell, it is best to be downwind of where you expect them to come from. (Contact your local Fish and Wildlife office for information on where to view elk in your area.)

Feeding Areas

In winter, look for pits dug in snow where elk have been pawing for food, or for the well-worn trails or crisscrossing tracks in the snow typical of foraging elk. Gnawed aspen and other deciduous tree trunks are also common in elk country during winter. The bottom-teeth-only scrape marks of elk and moose are virtually identical. Gnawings may also be found on downed trees and branches and are easily distinguished from the chisel-like cuttings of beaver.

Aspen trunks that have been gnawed year after year eventually develop a rough, blackened trunk as far up as the animal can reach. A grove of black-trunked aspen is a sign that winter range has been heavily used by elk or moose.

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Tracks and Trails

Elk, much easier to track than most animals due to their weight, leave marks in or on almost anything they walk over. Tracks, often found in large numbers indicating a passing herd, are easy to identify and follow (Fig. 3).

Like all members of the deer family, elk have cloven hooves that normally resemble a split-heart shape on soft earth. The dewclaws on all four feet may register in several inches of mud or snow. Hoof prints may be splayed wide on slippery surfaces, or when the animals were running.

Elk trails are often several animals wide and quite noticeable at the transition from grassland into brush or woodlands.


Given a steady, consistent diet, pellets deposited by deer and elk may be the same general shape and texture. Individual pellets are usually dimpled at one end and have a small projection at the other, giving them an almost acorn-like shape. However, elk droppings are slightly larger, and whereas an adult deer may leave 20 to 30 pellets at a time, elk may deposit twice that many. This difference in volume becomes especially apparent when a rich diet causes the animals’ droppings to become a soft mass, similar to a domestic cowpie, but smaller.

“Elkpies” average 4 to 6 inches in diameter, while those of deer run about 2 inches across. Even when elk are eating mostly grass, elkpies will still show more distinct edges among the individual pellets than cowpies, which may be an amorphous mass.

Elk Rubs

In late summer, as antler growth ceases, it finishes mineralizing and the blood supply to the velvet begins to deteriorate. This causes the velvet covering of the antlers to dry up and shred. As it dies, bulls begin to vigorously rub their antlers on shrubs and trees, to help rid them of the velvet. This rubbing behavior may also be the first ritualized use of the bull’s newly hardened antlers—it is quite noisy and attracts the attention of other elk.

It has been theorized that this “horning” of shrubs frequently causes shrub branches to be broken off and intertwined with the bull’s antlers, effectively making them look larger and more threatening to rivals and more impressive to potential mates. The rubbing also covers the bone-white antler with plant compounds that subsequently oxidize and stain the antlers to their characteristic dark brown color.

Regardless of the cause of this behavior, the result is obvious: small saplings and shrubs are left looking like someone with a hedge trimmer went on an angry rampage. In areas where elk are abundant, mangled shrubs and small trees are extremely obvious signs of the presence of bulls and their preparation for breeding.

Wallow Sites

Probably the most easily identified elk sign is the mud wallow scented with urine and droppings. Bull elk roll in wallows to cover their bodies with scent, creating bathtub-size depressions with low walls of displaced mud ringing their perimeters. Receptive cow elk, drawn by the odor, will also roll and urinate in the wallow, indicating their willingness to mate. Elk that use these wallows may become so foul smelling that, when downwind, humans can easily detect their presence.

Elk also roll in mud wallows to loosen their dead winter coats and help dislodge annoying parasites. A coating of mud also provides some degree of protection from bloodsucking insects.

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Mud wallows are musky smelling and have light-colored hairs lining their bottoms as well as fresh hoofprints all around. Wallows are found where the ground is wet and muddy, usually near water and almost always in a secluded area where elk feel relaxed enough to drop their guard a bit. Abandoned wallows will likely be filled with water, have grasses growing around them, and may develop into breeding sites for frogs and salamanders.


Elk are the noisiest member of the deer family in North America. Males are known for their eerie bugles during the rutting season. The bugle starts with a guttural groaning that quickly yields to a high-pitched whistle, and often ends with a few repetitive low-toned grunts.

Calves often bleat to locate their mothers, and adult females commonly bark loudly to alert other elk to danger.

Tips for Attracting Elk

The large ranges required by elk, especially elk that migrate between summer and winter ranges, mean that most property owners are unable to manage or provide year round elk habitat. Thus, habitat management for elk requires considerable coordination among landowners.

Contact the agency that owns large areas of elk habitat near you. Ask them to carefully manage such things as the timing and distribution of firewood cutting, logging, and the density of roads in order to minimize elk disturbances, especially in high-use summer areas.

Because lands traditionally used by elk are severely impacted by land subdivisions, changes in agricultural practices, and invading noxious weeds, policies that control these activities can substantially benefit elk. (Plants that elk prefer are listed in Table 2.)

Key winter range areas should be identified and given high priority in future land acquisitions, leases, easements, and incentives to create or preserve elk habitat. (Contact your local Fish and Wildlife office for cost-share or other programs that may help you manage elk on your property.)

Mineral blocks are attractive to elk and deer, especially during the spring. However, mineral blocks, if placed on the ground, will leach minerals into the soil. Even after removing the block, these leached minerals will continue to attract use and in almost no time at all you will have a pit in the ground, excavated by elk and/or deer. These can become huge areas that could be an injury hazard to an animal or person, and they may continue to be excavated several seasons after removing the mineral block.

So, once you commit to putting a mineral block on the ground, it’s no simple matter to change your mind and remove it. Once there, its presence, even if only temporary, will continue to affect the local environment.

Leaching may be prevented by putting the block in a covered area or in a plastic tub with high enough walls to prevent an animal from rolling the block out onto the ground.

If a landowner intended to hunt deer or elk in the area where a mineral block was located, they should check with enforcement personnel to make sure the use of a mineral block would not constitute “baiting” or be restricted for any reason.

For additional information, see “Tips for Attracting Deer” in Deer.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>