Elk were once native to the eastern U. S., but over hunting and loss of habitat pushed them west and north. There is a reference to the last far eastern elk being killed in Pennsylvania in 1869. Reintroduction of elk at Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area to the west, and in Kentucky to the north will increase the chances of seeing these magnificent animals locally. I’m sure most hunter folk have salivated over elk photos and videos enough to know all about them. But for those not as familiar with them, let me present some quick elk facts.
The scientific name of the elk is Cervus elaphus, and they are grouped in the family Cervidae, or deer family. All hoofed animals that have antlers which are shed each year belong in this family, which includes deer, moose, and caribou. A popular Native American name for Elk is Wapiti, which means “white deer”. The word elk is used in Europe to describe moose.
There should be no problem identifying an elk from our white tail deer. They are considerably bigger, averaging a length of 6-8 feet and a height at shoulder of 4 to 5 feet. . Males weigh in at 700-900 pounds and females 500-600. The fur is a red-brown color with a pale rump and a short tail. Antlers are huge when compared to deer. They are shed each Spring and begin growing back immediately. They have been recorded at a growth rate of 1 inch per day, and full growth takes 6 months.
The circle of life for elk goes like this: Bulls fight in November to win and protect a harem of 6-8 cows or more. After breeding calves are born around 250 days later, and weigh 30 pounds at birth. They begin grazing in 4-6 weeks and are usually weaned in October. In summer cows and calves graze together in groups, with bulls forming separate herds. In autumn the bulls’ loud resonant bugling announces the rut, when they fight sometimes to the death for possession of a harem. Males and females forage together in winter, and then separate for the birth of the young. Cows begin breeding at 3-4 years old, and elk have an average life span of 18 years.
Elk browse a wide variety of trees and shrubs, as well as forage from grasses and other herbaceous plants. Their diet is around 70% browse and 30% grasses and forbs. As for athletic abilities, Elk have been recorded clearing a 10 foot fence, and reaching running speeds of up to 40 mph for short distances.