Through the dappled light of an Ozark forest, you catch a glimpse of majestic antlers. The creature moves through the trees and is gone, with the stealth of an animal a fraction of its size. Was it a deer? Not a chance, it was too big. Then you hear a powerful, drawn-out squeal—the unforgettable bugle of a bull elk calling to his cows.
You bet. Elk lived throughout the Show-Me State long before early settlers showed up. They’ve been gone for about 150 years, mainly due to overhunting and habitat destr uction. But fortunately for Missourians, elk will once again roam the forested hills of southern Missouri starting this year.
A team of state and federal agencies and citizens are working together to bring a small herd of elk from Kentucky, where they were introduced and now thrive. The elk will be moved to a restoration zone in and around the Peck Ranch Conservation Area in a remote part of the Ozarks.
The Conservation Department will manage the elk’s return. Bringing back native wildlife is part of MDC’s job. It has successfully brought back deer, turkey and many other types of wildlife. In case you think elk are just supersized deer, think again. Elk are not only unique, they are truly amazing!
Male elk are called bulls, females are called cows, and young are calves. While newborns are only about 35 pounds, males weigh 600 to 800 pounds when mature. Cows, calves and yearlings live in herds of up to 50 members. Bulls live in smaller bachelor groups or travel alone. Males join female herds during the mating season, called the rut. After a bull has selected a group of females, it is called a harem.
Each year, elk grow two different coats of fur. For winter, they grow thick manes to warm their necks. Their bodies are insulated by thick underfur that acts like your heavy winter coat. Long, waterproof guard hairs on top keep them dry. Each spring, they shed, or molt, this heavy layer, and grow shorter, thinner hair for summer. This is why elk sometimes have old fur hanging in tattered strips in the spring.
Spring is when antlers grow fastest. During this time, they are covered in a velvet case, and infused with blood, much like a bone in your leg. As the season progresses, the velvet drops off. Bulls scrape the remaining velvet off by rubbing their racks on trees. By then, their antlers are super tough. When two bulls decide to battle, antlers are serious weapons. Most often bulls lock antlers and shove each other around until one turns and runs. Despite all that work to grow them, antlers are shed, or dropped, each year.
Elk are also called wapiti, a Native American word that means white rump.
Elk are a chatty bunch. Bulls may bugle to attract cows or to advertise their dominance to other bulls. They grunt at cows that stray from their harem. Cows bark to warn of danger, mew to keep track of each other, and whine softly to signal to their calves. Calves in distress bleat for their mothers. Elk have “knuckles” in their feet that make clicking sounds with every step. This helps them track eac
Elk are social animals and find safety in numbers. After all, 50 sets of eyes and ears are better than one. One elk is always on the lookout for predators while others feed or snooze. Other times, one cow will babysit all of the new calves while the other cows go off to graze.
Buglers, whistlers, tusks, ivories—regardless of what you call them, an elk’s top two canine teeth are possibly remnants of saber-like tusks from their prehistoric ancestors. They are made of the same ivory as elephant and walrus tusks. As elk evolved and their racks grew larger, their teeth shrank to their present length—about the size of your thumb. When an elk sneers and exposes its canines, it means business. Elk ivories were prized by Native Americans, who used them as currency and as a display of success. Modern hunters still treasure these special teeth.
If your stomach has ever been empty, then imagine you weigh 600 pounds and have FOUR stomachs to fill! Elk need to eat up to 15 pounds of plant parts a day. Elk eat grasses, plants, leaves, bark, twigs and acorns. Their long necks help them reach tasty leaves. They eat morning, noon and night, and never miss a midnight snack. If you ate as much as an elk, you’d only have 10 minutes an hour to do anything else.
Elk antlers are a story all their own. An elk’s rack is much larger than a deer’s. It can weigh up to 40 pounds. Antlers are the fastest growing bones in nature, adding up to an inch a week! It takes lots of energy to grow a big rack, but it’s worth it. A big rack signals to cows that a bull knows where to find food, which is what herd survival is all about. A large rack is also used to do battle with other bulls to gain control of the herd.
Only male elk have antlers. In the summer, a bull elk’s antlers act as air conditioners. Blood flowing through the velvet covering helps to cool the bull’s body.
Nichole Leclair Terrill