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Introduction:Sojourners who visit the Rocky Mountains in the autumn are often fortunate to hear the incredible sound of a bull elk bugle. It will raise the hair on the back of your neck. This vocalization is meant to intimidate other bulls to let them know that he is the biggest and toughest customer in the woods. This is all done in the name of love.
Witnessing a harem of cows and numerous bulls trying to vie for the available cows is an awe inspiring sight that few are privileged to see unless they are perfectly positioned and have a lot of luck.
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Rocky Mountain Elk, Cervus elaphus :
The elk is a very social animal. While they are walking through the woods they are constantly vocalizing to each other to reassure as well as communicate regarding safety and security to the harem. Herds can be as large as 25 cows, calves and yearlings. Younger bulls tend to group together and mature bulls tend to be solitary until the fall when the “rut” or breeding season begins.
A mature bull elk is usually 8 to 12 years old and can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and a mature cow can weigh as much as 600 pounds. When standing on four legs, a bull elk can be as five feet high at the shoulder. Their massive antlers sweep back from their heads and sometimes extend all the way to the rump. It is truly amazing to witness a bull elk run through a stand of timber and efficiently twist his antlers back and forth without hitting a single tree.
The elk in a herd rely on a mature cow called the “lead cow”. This cow typically is one of the more mature cows and has memorized trails to and from all the crucial areas in their home range. The other elk rely on the lead cow to safely escort them to the proper areas at the right time. The other elk learn from the lead cow and this is how elk successfully live in an area for years and years.
The diet of an elk consists of grasses, forbs, shrubs, twigs and tree bark.
The rut begins in late August to and might run until November. Bull elk fight each other for the right to pass on his genes to the harem of cows. Bulls expend massive amounts of calories defending the harem or challenging for a harem.
For a video of elk and to hear their vocalization please go to this Elk YouTube video.
When they actually clash it is an amazing sight. I witnessed one such confrontation in September in the Bridger Mountain is southwest Montana. The herb bull was challenged by an equally impressive satellite bull. When they lock horns pandemonium broke loose. They knocked down trees and the amount of power that they had was enormous. The clash lasted only a half a minute or so and the herb bull remained victorious. His last shot was to stab the challenger in the rear with his dagger like horn.
Cows give birth from late May to early June. Calves work hard at getting enough nourishment to grow and store up energy for the hard times of winter that will soon be here.
Distribution:Historically elk ranged across the nearly all of the United States and over most of western Canada. Their current range includes the Rocky Mountains and small pockets of habitat where they have successfully been reintroduced, such as Pennsylvania and on the Great Plains in North Dakota and Montana.
Elk use large herds as a form of protection against predators. Like most adult mammals most healthy elk are in little danger from predators. However, the predators will make easy prey of sick, weak adults and the young. Perhaps the most efficient four-legged hunter is the wolf, who hunt in packs and is a large threat to any animal in its home range.
The elk calves are also in danger from black bears who hunt for them right after they are born.
Threats from Mankind:Before the settlement of the United States in the 1800’s, the 7 species of elk inhabiting North America were spread across the continent. According to historical accounts such as Lewis and Clark’s journals, it was not unusual to see large herds of elk in the prairies of the West. Hunting and loss of habitat due to development has thus far made 2 species extinct.
It seems that elk and humans both have good tastes about where to live. This is causing problems for both species. In the western United States, many housing developments are being established in prime elk habitat. This appears to be the main threat for the Rocky Mountain Elk.
Current conservation efforts are focused on securing both winter and summer ranges for elk. Securing migratory routes is also a key to continued well-being of this species. Elk calving grounds and other habitat that are protected from development will also speed this recovery effort.