Elk are deep copper brown to light tan in color with a light beige patch on the rump. Their legs and neck are often darker than their body. Male elk, or bulls, grow antlers (bony elongated and branched growths on their heads) every year. A pair of antlers can weigh up to 40 pounds. The females, or cows, do not grow antlers and are typically smaller than bulls.
Elk, particularly the young calves, are preyed upon by mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and wolves. Elk use speed and agility to outrun predators, sprinting up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour. Elk can live up to 15 years in the wild.
Elk are herd animals – they live, feed and travel in groups. By herding up they collectively use their hearing and eyesight to detect predators. More eyes and ears looking for predators equals a better a chance of survival, especially for calves. In order to keep track of one another in thick brush, their “knuckles” make slight cracking noises when they walk. When elk hear knuckle cracking, they know it’s another elk nearby and not a predator.
Elk are highly adaptable and can live in a variety of habitats from rainforests to alpine meadows and dry desert valleys to hardwood forests. Elk typically migrate from high elevations (mountains) in the summer months to lower elevations (meadows) in the winter months.
Elk are herbivores, which means they feed on plants. In particular, elk are grazers which means they feed primarily on grasses and forbs (low-growing plants and wild flowers) clipping the vegetation close to the ground; however, elk also eat shrubs and trees. During summer they feed on grasses and forbs such as clover, strawberry and thistle, and eat more shrubs, tree bark and twigs during winter when grass is scarce. Elk need to eat 10 to 15 pounds of vegetation each day.
Elk mate in the fall, during a time known as the “rut.” Bulls (males) gather cows (females) and calves into small groups called harems. Bulls fight each other to show their strength and dominance and to protect their harems. Mature bulls often sustain injuries each year. Cows typically give birth to one calf, 81⁄2 months later, twins are rare. Calves are born spotted for better camouflage and scentless to help hide them from predators.
Elk Through The Seasons
In winter, elk eat less and rest more. They move to low valleys to find areas with little to no snow, exposing grasses to eat. If too much snow covers the grass then elk will eat shrubs that stick out above the snow, pine needles and tree bark. During the day elk feed on open, sunny slopes and bed down in the trees at night for shelter from the wind and cold temperatures.
Elk take advantage of new growth and eat many plants and leaves. Bulls grow new antlers, covered in a nutrient-rich, hairy skin called velvet. Elk migrate to their summer grounds in higher elevations where it’s cooler. Cows start giving birth in late spring. Calves are typically born in late May through early June.
Cows nurse and protect their calves. By July, cows have formed nursery groups to help guard the calves from predators. Bulls usually spend the summer alone or in small groups at higher elevations. Elk bed down in cool, shady forests during the day. They often wade or lie in streams, rivers, ponds and lakes to seek relief from heat and biting insects. Elk eat almost constantly during the summer to build up fat reserves for the mating season and winter. A bull’s antlers harden by late summer as the velvet peels away, leaving solid bone.
Fall: The Rut
Elk mate in early fall. They also begin to move to lower valleys for the winter. When the rut begins, bulls will bugle to attract cows and announce their presence to other bulls. An older, larger bull will usually bugle more loudly than a younger rival. Mature bulls herd with cows and calves to form harems. When the rut ends, the harem breaks-up. Cows and calves focus on preparing for winter by eating high-quality food.
Tracks: Two-toed, rounded track about four inches in length.
Scat: Oval pellets measuring ¾-1½ inches long. Looks very similar to deer scat only bigger. During summer months when wetter foods are eaten, elk scat may look more like small cow patties, measuring 5-6 inches in diameter.
Wallow: A shallow, muddy depression marked with antler jabs and hoof prints filled with oily-looking, musky-smelling water. Bulls urinate into the depression and then roll in it during the rut in fall. This, in addition to urinating on their own fur, “perfumes” the bulls to help attract cows.
Rub: As soon as a bulls’ antlers stop growing and are fully hardened, they rub their antlers on trees and shrubs to shed the velvet off the antlers. Bulls remove large patches of bark from trees when removing their velvet.
Trails and herd paths: These are trails elk commonly use to go between feeding, bedding and watering areas. These will be well-worn paths found in all habitat types, but often show up better in grassy or forested areas. Many different animals will use these paths, especially in areas with snowfall.
Bed: Elk beds are found where they find shelter from the wind and sun, or protection from predators. They will bed in fields, forest edges or under and near shrubs. Beds are oval or circular in shape, with plants matted down or soil mostly free of debris.
Calls to Use When Hunting
Bugle: This eerie bellow that grows to a high squealing whistle and ending with grunting is how bull elk advertise their fitness to cows, warn other bulls to stay away, and announce their readiness to fight other bulls. Hunters use the bugle call to locate and draw in a bull that wants to establish dominance or challenge intruders.
Cow call: Elk are herd animals and use a wide range of calls to communicate with each other. In addition to bugling, elk also make calf calls, cow calls and bull squeals. For example, cow calls are common “talk” among elk, and are a reassuring and non-confrontational sound. Hunters use the cow call to slowly approach an elk herd and then lure in a bull that wants to investigate the “female.”
The most effective and safest place to aim is for the lungs while the elk is quartering away or broadside. The heart and lungs are low behind the shoulder. If you aim too far forward you will hit the shoulder blade and the arrow may only wound the animal. Aiming too far back may result in a gut shot.
- Make sure you’re in good shape to spot-and-stalk. The better your condition, the more ground you can cover when looking for and pursuing active elk.
- Practice using cow and bugle calls. They can often trigger a response that helps you locate elk and coax them into bow range.
- Hunt with a partner. Elk often “hang up” 50 or more yards from where you’re calling so position yourself between your partner and the elk. Have your partner call so you’ll be ready to shoot as the elk approaches while looking for the “cow” or “bull” that’s calling. If hunting alone, call and then quickly move in the elk’s direction to be in position before the elk appears.
- Make sure you’re downwind when stalking elk. Once you’re within about 100 yards of the elk, slow down and plan your next move that will put you in their path.
- Temperatures during elk bow season can be warm, so be prepared to get the meat off the animal and into cool storage as soon as possible. Have coolers, mesh game bags, plastic storage bags, a knife sharpener and “freighter” backpacks available.
Field Dressing & Meat Care
Due to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal disease that attacks deer, elk and moose, it is very important that you wear rubber gloves when handling meat. CWD is a communicable disease among deer, elk and moose that affects the brain and nervous system. Scientists are not sure what causes CWD. However, prions found in the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils, and spleen may be responsible. You CANNOT destroy prions with cooking the meat. Do not cut through the spinal cord except to remove the head. Use a knife designated for this purpose or you could contaminate other meat. At this point, CWD has not been proven to affect humans.
For more information on CWD please visit www.cwd-info.org.
Many hunters in the western United States will quarter their game after field dressing to store for several days in a cool dry location before packing their meat out of their hunting location.
If you shoot an animal that looks or behaves abnormally, contact your local Wildlife Agency, DNR or Conservation Officer for CWD status and precautions you should take before field dressing it.
Illustrations: Ryan Kirby
Content was provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, for more information go to www.rmef.org.
- Cooney, Judd. The Bowhunter’s Field Manual. New York: Woods N’ Water, 2006.
- Dalrymple, B.W. North American Big Game Animals. Outdoor Life Books, NY, 1985.
- Your State Wildlife Agency or Department of Natural Resources for specific information on elk in your area.