• Scientific Name: Cervus elaphus
  • Niimiipuutímt: tasiipx (tas-EEK-pahk) (female)
  • Niimiipuutímt: wewukiye (weh-WOOK-yeh) (male)



Physical Characteristics
Elk are the second largest members of the deer family. Adult male elk, referred to as bulls, attain their largest size at 7 years old. Once fully grown, a bull elk averages 5 feet tall at the shoulders and can weigh between 700 and 1100 pounds. Female elk, known as cows, weigh between 500 and 600 pounds, and stand an average of 4.5 feet at shoulder height. Only bulls have antlers.

Antlers play a very important role in mate selection. Antlers, unlike the horns of bison, are shed every spring and a new set is grown. Antler growth is in preparation for the mating season, which primarily occurs in September and October. Large antlers advertise dominance and the ability to defend against predators and other bulls. Therefore, female elk will generally select a dominant bull with large antlers. Antlers can weigh up to 40 pounds per set. Velvet, which covers antlers during the growth phase, carries blood to the growing bone tissue. During the summer months, antlers can grow up to one inch per day, making it the fastest growing bone known.

The blood flow to the antlers stops in August, when the antlers have reached their full size. At this point, the velvet covering dries and falls off or is rubbed off on trees or shrubs.

Teeth in elk are similar to other deer except for the presence of upper canine teeth. An elk's canine teeth, made of ivory, are unique and were highly prized by both Native Americans and European settlers. The "ivories" (also called tusks, whistlers, or buglers) were primarily used as decorative beads, pendants, and necklaces, and were very valuable due to their rarity. The elk's molars and incisors provide the best indication of the animal's age.

The gestation period of elk is approximately 8.5 months, with calves born from late May through early July. Cows separate from the herd and go into hiding during calving. Calves are hidden during the first few weeks following birth until they are able to run from predators. A cow usually gives birth to a single calf, but on rare occasions there will be twins. At birth a calf weighs about 35 pounds.

Elk form herds which offer protection against predators. Cows and calves live in groups, but are generally only accompanied by bull elk during the mating season, or "rut." The rut occurs in autumn.

Elk begin "bugling"---their signature mating call---in early autumn. This is typically a good time to see and hear elk. (A recording of a bugling elk) The rut is characterized by harems, which are groups of cows and calves, controlled by a dominant bull. During other seasons, males can be found alone or in small bachelor groups.

elk herd

Elk can live in a variety of habitats, including forests, meadows, and mountains. Their diet includes grasses, tree leaves, twigs, and shrubs. Bark, pine needles, and tree lichens are also eaten in smaller quantities. Elk eat an average of 3 pounds of food per day for every 100 pounds of body weight; therefore, a bull elk weighing 800 pounds would eat about 24 pounds of forage each day.  Elk thrived in North America until the first Europeans began settling the area. Prior to their arrival, an estimated 10 million elk ranged across the United States. European settlers hunted elk to provide food for their families and because they feared the elk would compete with livestock. Also, market demands for elk products such as hides, antlers, and "ivories" encourage the harvest of elk.

Elk habitat was lost as thousands of acres were cleared for farms and developing towns. As a result of over-harvest and habitat destruction, elk populations began to decline, reaching a low of
90,000 by 1900.

By the 20th century, two of the six subspecies, including the Eastern elk which lived throughout the eastern United States, were extinct. Fortunately, Americans concerned with the survival of the elk called for regulated hunting seasons and initiated elk recovery programs.

For Your Safety
Elk appear relatively docile, but they can be unpredictable and dangerous.  Do not approach or attempt to provoke them. Large animals should be respected at all times, especially bulls and cows with calves. Also, for your safety and for the elk's safety, DO NOT FEED the animals.

Offering human food to elk (or any wild animal) is harmful in two ways:

  1. It conditions the animals to view people as a food source, leading to the possibility of property damage and human injury; and
  2. Human food is not healthy for the animals.

Learning Center Highlights