RANGE AND HABITAT

Declared the state mammal in 1971, Rocky Mountain elk can be found throughout much of Utah. They migrate between high-elevation summer ranges in mountain forests and meadows and, in winter, lower-elevation valleys and south-facing slopes with less snowfall and better forage possibilities. Once widely distributed throughout North America, grazing on open plains as well as in the mountains, today they are seen primarily in the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

DESCRIPTION

The second-largest members of the deer family in North America, elk have light-brown bodies and darker-brown heads, necks and legs. They can be 63/4 to 93/4 feet long, nose to rump; adults stand about 5 feet high at the shoulder. Females, called cows, weigh 450-650 pounds; males, or bulls, weigh 600-1,089 pounds. Their offspring are calves. Cows do not have antlers, while the antlers of mature bulls typically have six points, or tines, on each antler beam. The antlers are shed each spring and a new set begins to grow, protected by a soft, veinous covering called "velvet." During the breeding season, bull elk can be heard sounding a high-pitched bugle or call meant to challenge or warn other bull elk in the area.

DIET AND HABITS

Elk are primarily grazers, preferring grasses, sedges and nonwoody plants when available. In winter, however, they may browse on twigs, bark and pine needles from such plants as oakbrush, aspen, serviceberry, sagebrush and willow. Nocturnal and especially active at dusk and dawn, they are social animals that herd for companionship and protection against predators. Herds can number up to several hundred animals, with a hierarchy based upon sex and age. During breeding season in September and October, mature bulls establish harems of one to 15 cows and sometimes must fight other bulls, battling to retain possession of their females with lowered heads and antlers.

OF INTEREST

Elk are sometimes called "wapiti," meaning "white rump," a descriptive name given them by Shawnee Indians. Elk populations declined by the late 19th century due to unregulated hunting. Transplant efforts were undertaken in some Utah mountain ranges, and as part of the management program the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources purchased northern Utah's Hardware Ranch as an overwintering and feeding area for elk to keep the animals away from agricultural areas and to preserve grazing ranges for deer.

Sources: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Project Wild.