A very large member of the deer family with a thick neck, long, slender legs, a long head, and large ears. Elk are the second largest member of the deer family (after the moose).
Male elk (bulls) have antlers that are grown and shed annually; females (cows) generally do not. Elk antlers have a different size and conformation than those of white-tailed deer, being much larger and sweeping backward rather than forward. Antler size in elk increases with age up to 7 or 8 years and then plateaus; subsequently antlers gradually decrease in size. Antlers are shed from late winter to early spring.
Elk have two coats: a thick winter coat for insulation and a thinner summer coat. The overall coloration is tan in the winter and reddish brown in the summer, and both males and females have a dark brown head, neck, legs, and belly. A long, dark, shaggy mane hangs from the neck to the chest and is heaviest during winter. Elk have a light-colored rump and light tan or straw-colored short tail. Newborn elk young (calves) are spotted much like white-tailed deer. Calf elk are recognizable until 3–5 months of age, when their spots are lost and a normal winter pelage is grown.
Elk are vocal mammals issuing a variety of calls and sounds, including the male's well-known screaming “bugle,” plus grunts, mews, and barks, as well as a “knuckle cracking” sound produced by the front legs when walking that is a means of maintaining contact when a herd is moving through heavy cover.
Length: 7–9 feet; weight: 500–830 pounds. Females are generally smaller than males.
Portions of Carter, Reynolds, and Shannon counties.
Habitat and Conservation
In Missouri, elk prefer open pastures and woodlands and wooded slopes. Before the coming of Europeans, elk, or wapiti, probably ranged over the entire region of what is now Missouri. By 1830, elk were becoming scarce; they eventually were limited to just the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state. By the 1880s, they were extirpated. Today, elk have been reintroduced, in large part, because of their popularity for hunting and ecotourism.
Elk consume roughly equal amounts of grasses, forbs (herbaceous nongrass plants), and woody browse such as twigs, bark, seedlings, saplings, and leaves, and they eat acorns in the fall when they are available. They are opportunistic feeders, and their diet largely depends on the available flora of the region, but they will seek out areas with their preferred foods.
The proportion of grass, forbs, and woody browse in the diet changes by season. In general, the forb component will be highest in the spring and summer, and the grass and woody browse components will be highest in the fall and winter.
In the Missouri Ozarks, the restored elk utilize deliberately planted food plots, pastures and other open ground, and a variety of forested settings.
Like cattle, elk are ruminants and have four-chambered stomachs.
Due to habitat loss and overhunting by settlers — usually for skins, leaving the meat behind — elk had been absent from our state since the 1880s. Reintroduction efforts from 2011-2013 center around the fact they are a native species and their importance as a game animal. Elk hunting has long been popular and common in the western states. Biologists debate whether the North American elk, Cervus canadensis, is the same species as the European red deer (C. elaphus). You will see it presented both ways.
Shortly before the fall rut (late September–mid-October), bulls lose the velvet on their antlers and begin to compete for females. Pre-breeding sparring establishes dominance hierarchies that are rarely crossed afterward. A dominant bull advertises his presence to attract a “harem” of cows (he will breed with each cow in his harem) and to discourage other bulls from intruding.
Harems are usually made up of 1 bull and from a few to 25 females with their yearling calves, and are seasonal. Typically prime-age bulls (ages 5–9) hold harems, and younger and very old bulls remain on the outskirts of the group. Harem-holding bulls usually can scare off opponents with threat displays instead of aggressive and costly clashes. Still, during the breeding season males expend much energy guarding harems and may lose up to 17 percent of their body weight.
Elk breed during the fall, and young are born in early summer. Cow elk generally have their first young at 3 years of age. In spring, pregnant female elk will typically leave groups and seek out calving habitat. After a gestation of about 8–9 months, cows give birth to a single calf; twins are rare.
At birth, calves weigh around 33–35 pounds and have whitish spots on their back and sides. A calf is typically mobile 1 hour after birth. The cow and her calf will live alone for several weeks. Newborn calves are hiders, remaining immobile and hidden, with the cow visiting only to nurse and remove fecal material that could attract predators.
Over a period of days, calves become increasingly mobile and can outrun many potential predators. At around 16 days the cow and calf will join the herd, and weaning is completed within 60 days.
Elk live 20 years or more in captivity but average 10–13 years in the wild.
Elk hunting is popular. Elk were historically important for food and hides. Many Native Missouri tribes, notably the Osage, hunted elk. For centuries, elk have held special symbolic and spiritual significance for Native American tribes.
Gray wolves, red wolves, and mountain lions historically preyed on elk in Missouri. While we only rarely have wolves wander into Missouri, mountain lion sightings are not uncommon in the state. A handful of elk have been predated by mountain lions since 2011. Black bear are known to prey on elk calves in western states, and as Missouri’s bear population increases and expands its range, predation on elk may occur. Coyote and bobcat can take newborn calves. Today, in places where elk populations are secure, modern hunters keep elk populations in check.
Signs and Tracks
Front and hind tracks:
- 4–5 inches long
- 2 hooves.
- Had been extirpated from Missouri since about the 1880s.
- Currently have been restored to three Ozark counties.
- Each track is heart-shaped overall, with a split down the middle.
- Less pointed and much larger than the tracks of white-tailed deer.
- Two dewclaws may leave dots behind each track, especially on mud or snow.
- Hind tracks often overlap the front of front tracks (walking).
- Distance of stride is 3–5 feet (walking); can be more than 15 feet when bounding.