Elk can be the most visible, and alternately invisible, big game animal in the Northwest.
Drive into Yellowstone National Park’s Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., and you will see them living in close quarters with the crush of tourists, many of whom pose for photos with the animals or confusedly try to navigate vehicles around the big ungulates as they lumber across the road, backing up traffic.
Trek into the forest, though, and a 700-pound bull can vanish into a strip of trees so thin that you would swear the elk had simply evaporated. How can such a big beast, standing about 5 feet tall at the shoulder and with antlers that can stretch another 3 feet or more overhead, disappear and do it so quietly?
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It’s not surprising that modern humans should find elk so interesting to observe, photograph and — hopefully at a safe distance — interact with. Ancient pictographs and petroglyphs scratched or painted into the side of cliffs demonstrate that the animals have long fired our species’ imagination. It’s easy to see why, since elk have several unusual traits.
For example, the annual fall rut, when bulls bugle to demonstrate dominance and to signal their presence to cow elk for breeding. It always seems strange that a husky animal can produce such a high, piercing whistle.
The bulls lose their large antlers every year and regrow them, a sign of vigor that has prompted some people to value ground elk antlers as a health enhancement, a natural Viagra. Those shed antlers were the raw material for a variety of tools, such as the spur on atlatls, the spear-throwing devices that predate the bow and arrow.
In more modern American Indian tribes, the elk’s two ivory teeth were used as decorations on women’s dresses. The more teeth a dress had, the better provider/hunter the woman had. Elk teeth were their bling.
Cervus elaphus, the scientific name for elk, are the most abundant large mammal found in Yellowstone National Park, with their population at one time topping 25,000 animals in the summer as herds migrated in from the surrounding states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to eat fresh green growth.
The re-introduction of wolves to the park, beginning in 1995, resulted in a steady decline in elk numbers as the species became the main food source for the large canines. The decline of elk populations and the growth of wolf numbers have now hit what seems to be an equilibrium, with both species at lower numbers.
Wolves aren’t the only predators elk face. Cougars, grizzlies, black bears, coyotes and even golden eagles will dine on young elk calves. Biologists estimate up to two-thirds of each year’s elk calf crop may be lost to predators.
Elk also face threats from disease. Brucellosis now infects elk and fears of chronic wasting disease loom large as it closes in on Yellowstone from Wyoming.
Shorter winters and elk attraction to irrigated agricultural land has also led some elk to halt annual migrations, instead living year-round closer to humans.
As fall settles in to the mountainous West and hunters fan out in search of elk to fill freezers, provide sport and maybe even a trophy set of antlers for the wall, it’s a good time to give thanks to the large mammals, and to the agency folks that help manage their populations, the hunters who buy licenses to fund state agencies’ management, as well as the private landowners who put up with what can sometimes be an elk infestation. Let’s also thank our ancestors for having the foresight to establish places like Yellowstone that serve as islands of safety for a variety of wildlife.
Elk are a magical animal that still haunt the dreams of many hunters and wildlife lovers. They remain a tie to our ancient ancestors, a wonder to behold and to anyone who has pursued them, a crafty creature capable of amazing feats of athleticism.
Hail to the elk.