Bull elk are probably the most majestic and iconic animals of the deer family. Images of these awesome creatures can be seen representing everything from insurance companies to fraternal organizations. There are many characteristics of bull elk that create their mystique. Certainly their massive size, both in body and antler, makes them one of the most prized hunting trophies. Their distinctive mating call, or bugle, during the rut is like no other animal. If you are going to hunt, or even just observe and photograph bull elk, it will be good to have a more in depth knowledge of the animals and their behaviors.
Different Elk Species
There are four distinct subspecies of elk that live in North America, and close relatives that live in Europe. The characteristics of these subspecies differ slightly.
- Roosevelt Elk – The bulls of this subspecies have the largest bodies, and they are primarily located in the Northwestern United States, Western Canada, and Alaska.
- Manitoba Elk – These elk are located in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, southeastern Alberta and the southern half of Saskatchewan.
- Tule Elk – The smallest bodied elk subspecies is located in small pockets of California.
- Rocky Mountain Elk – With the largest population and range, these elk are the most commonly hunted, and are indeed the focus of this website. All references to bull elk on this webpage will be with regard to Rocky Mountain Elk.
How Big Is a Bull Elk?
The average mature bull elk will be about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, 8 feet long, and weigh about 700 pounds. This is obviously much larger than the average whitetail or mule deer, and should be taken into consideration when hunting. You should be prepared to field dress the animal, properly care for up to 200 pounds of meat, transport it to proper storage, and have it processed for consumption. With the right attention, elk meat is some of the best tasting wild game.
The huge antlers of bull elk make it one of the most sought after trophies for hunters from all parts of the globe. It is not uncommon for a mature bull to have antlers more than 50 inches long. The antlers are shed each spring and reach full growth in late summer. At a growth rate of up to 1 inch per day, it is some of the fastest growing tissue in nature.
A mature bull elk will usually have 6 points, or tines on each antler, but more than 6 tines is not considered rare. Tines can reach 18 inches long or longer. Bull elk antlers are typically referenced by the number of tines, with each side referenced separately. A bull with 6 tines on each side is called a 6X6 (“6 by 6”). The Boone and Crockett Club has developed a standard for measuring antlers to determine a score. Directions for measuring and an online calculator can be found on the club’s website.
Bull Elk Habitat
Elk are very adaptable animals and can be found from the high deserts of the southwestern United States to the tundra of Canada. But most of the elk in North America are found in the Rocky Mountains. Elk tend to make their beds in thick, wooded areas. Since they are primarily grazing animals, elk prefer to feed in large open meadows. But elk also enjoy browsing on the leaves of young aspen, oak and other plants found in their environment. While elk do become habituated to humans in areas where they are protected such as national parks, in general they require large expanses of undeveloped land that provides food, water, and shelter. Many large ranches in the western US are being subdivided into “ranchettes”. Parcels of land as small as small as 5 acres are being sold to individuals to build vacation or year round homes. Obviously these homes require roads for access, utilities, etc. While it’s easy to understand the desire to live closer to these wild areas, this development is having a significant negative impact on elk habitat and thus elk populations in these areas. The premier grass roots organization for protecting elk habitat is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Any serious elk hunter should support this fine organization.
Day in the Life of a Bull Elk
Since elk are nocturnal animals, the “day” of a bull elk will begin in late afternoon. He will rise from his bed in the thick timber, often on a north slope. As evening approaches, he will gradually work his way through the woods, feeding as he goes. While the sun is still up, the bull will typically stay in the shadows, working his way toward a watering hole, or his favorite meadow to feed for the night.
Depending on availability and perceived danger, bull elk may drink from a seep in a remote canyon, a muddy puddle created by a recent rain, streams, rivers, lakes or water tanks installed for domestic cattle.
Elk will feed and socialize throughout the night, staying in the same meadow all night long or leisurely browsing through the woods to another meadow if the mood strikes.
As the night turns to day and the sunshine begins to reach the mountain tops, bull elk will start making their way to a bedding area, with a possible stop to water along the way. When undisturbed by hunting pressure or other factors, bull elk will often choose the same general area to snooze for the day.
The habits mentioned here normally apply to both cow elk and bull elk until the rut approaches. As we’ll see in the next section, the rut can change habits significantly.
Year in the Life of a Bull Elk
Spring is a time of renewal for all of nature and the same is true of bull elk. Bulls can lose a large percentage of their body weight during the harsh winters. As the snow melts and the first green forage begins to appear, they will spend most of their time eating, even delaying their sleep into the morning daylight hours to eat more. Bull elk are usually seen with other bulls during this time of year, although yearling bulls can be found with cow and calf herds.
Bulls shed their antlers in early spring and begin growing their new set, with mature bulls starting their growth earliest. Actively growing antlers are covered in a soft fuzzy tissue called “velvet” that provides blood to the expanding bone tissue.
In many parts of elk country, spring is the time that elk begin the migration to higher country as the snowmelt yields succulent grasses and plants.
Summer will typically find bull elk in the highest country available to them that has good forage, water, and shelter. They will hang together in “bachelor” herds, away from the cows and calves. This is the time of growth, with bulls taking advantage of the rich food supply to put on as much weight as possible. In August, the antlers of the bull elk will complete their growth cycle and the velvet will begin to fall away or be rubbed off.
Before the approaching rut, the testosterone levels in bull elk will continue the upward swing that began in the spring with antler growth. This spike in hormones will begin to change their behaviors.
Bulls may begin to spar with each other to establish dominance in preparation for the all-out battles in the fall. They will begin to rub their antlers on trees and bushes or even dirt. This is to rub the velvet off the antlers but also as a display of strength. It is not uncommon for bull elk to break trees or branches of 4 inches in diameter or more with their powerful necks and imposing and dangerous antlers.
Bulls will begin to separate from one another, although they won’t typically pursue cows for breeding at this time. They will begin to bugle regularly, often simply to announce their location and keep track of where their peers are. Bulls may bugle throughout the night as they feed, and may pick up the pace in early morning as they stake out their bedding locations. Bull elk may even bugle some in the daylight hours as they wake from their naps to “check in” with each other.
The main feature of the fall season for bull elk is the onset of the rut, or breeding season. The peak of testosterone level in this season has the biggest impact on a bull’s behavior. This is also the beginning of most public hunting seasons, which will also influence the bull’s activities.
The rut is the breeding season for elk. It begins in September and can last up to 2 months. Exactly when it begins and how long it lasts can vary year to year. Bull elk are most vulnerable in this time of year due to their singular focus on breeding cows and dealing with the competition of the other bulls.
Mature bulls will invade the cow/calf herds and begin to isolate cows to join their harem. This involves lots of bugling, posturing, and some chasing. The bull will move his harem away from the larger herd and spend much of his time fending off other bulls. This can result in epic battles between large bulls that result in injury or can even be fatal. Once dominance has been established, the dominant or “herd bull” will allow other bulls to hang around his harem. These peripheral bull elk are called “satellite bulls”. Breeding takes place during this time, but some biologists theorize that the satellite bulls do as much or more of the breeding since the herd bull is so busy defending his harem.
As the rut passes its peak, bulls gradually begin to lose interest in the cows, eventually joining up with other bull elk in bachelor herds. Their attention gradually shifts from breeding to recovery. Bulls often lose a significant amount of weight during the rut, because they are simply too preoccupied to eat enough. The food supply has begun to dry up and wither with the colder weather, and more is required to provide the nutrition needed to recover. Injuries that occurred during battles with other bulls are given time to heal with more rest.
As snow begins to fall in the high country, elk will begin to migrate to lower elevations where food is more readily accessible. Bull elk are typically the last to leave the high country, but eventually join the other elk on the winter range. During this time of year, elk will move a little as possible to conserve energy. If the winter is severe, and the snow gets too deep, it will become difficult to dig through the snow to find enough food to eat. Elk calves are the most vulnerable, and many will not survive the harsh winters. If the bull elk have not had time to recover from the rut, or if they waited too long to start the migration, they may also succumb to nature’s most difficult season.
Hunting Bull Elk
The majority of big game hunters in the United State pursue whitetail deer. It’s important for the first time elk hunter to understand the differences in the environment and the techniques. There is always a lot to learn about elk hunting, and sharing information is the focus of this website. Be sure to visit the Hunting Tips webpage and browse through the menu to find topics.
Hunting techniques will vary, depending on many factors. The biggest factor is whether you are hunting pre-rut, during the rut, or post-rut. Obviously the choice of weapon will also play a significant role in how to go about your hunt. Also, hunting pressure, terrain, weather, elk density, bull to cow ratio, and many other factors will make a difference in how to go about hunting bull elk. Many of these factors can vary year to year and even day to day within a hunt. The best general advice is to learn all you can continuously, be persistent, be flexible, and enjoy the hunt!