Olympic Habitat Development Study
US FOREST SERVICE

 

Station 7 -
Elk
(Cervus canadensis, Synonym C. elaphus)
Family Cervidae

This is a Holarctic species, which mean its native range spreads across the temperate zone in the whole Northern Hemisphere (around the arctic). With such a vast range, it’s not surprising this cervid has many local names; in Europe is known as “red deer”. Traditionally regarded as one species -Cervus elaphus - it was separated into several sub-species with variations in size, coloration, and food preference.  Recent genetic evidence (Ludt et al. 2004) favors its separation in two separated species, so many scientists today classify our elk in America as C. canadensis.

Confused about names? It gets even better! In the Old World, a moose is called an “elk”, and when early Europeans came across our Cervus in America and noticed how it was much larger it was than their red deer, they were convinced this New World beast had more resemblance to a moose, so they named it “elk”. The name wapiti (another name for elk) came from the Shawnee term for “white rump”.

In the 19th century overhunting drastically reduced elk populations in the United States and by the late 1800’s it was locally extinct in the East Coast.  Active management, conservation and reintroduction programs brought the elk populations back again, and today its survival is not a concern.  In fact, elk populations in some areas may be much higher than they were historically because its native predators have been exterminated or drastically reduced.

Elk are very social and they congregate in herds of the same sex during the non-reproductive season.  During the rut, dominant males take over harems of females.  The antlers -present only in males- fall before the end of winter and grow back again in spring covered by a vascularized tissue known as velvet. The velvet is removed when the next rut starts again in fall.  The breeding season is stressful and exhausting for a dominant bull, who spends his time watching over his harem, displaying, marking his territory or dealing with challenging bulls. This ‘primary bull’ sometimes can be defeated and driven away by a lesser challenger who simply might be more rested and better fed.  A defeated and weakened male can be in dire straits surviving alone during the winter.

Depending on the sex (males are bigger than females), an adult elk weighs between 200 to 400 kilograms.441 to 882 lbs Such a large-bodied herbivore requires a great amount of food, prefering redcedar and yellow-cedar and avoiding prickly species such as Sitka-spruce).  Consequently, elk browsing can significantly alter local plant composition and make it difficult to propagate some species (such as cedars). Elk habitat will generally be improved by thinning and the creation of gaps because increasing light to the forest floor increases the development of vegetation which the elk use for food.  It can be difficult to measure the response of vegetation to the creation of gaps after an elk herd has moved through and enjoyed the smorgasbord!


 

Elk herd on the Olympic Peninsula.
Elk cows. Elk herd on the Olympic Peninsula. Elk bulls can have large antlers during the summer and fall. (Image by William W Dunmire - NPS)
Elk herd on the Olympic Peninsula.