For thousands of years, hunters, scientists, and nature lovers have been fascinated by North American elk. To the Lakota, elk represented strength, courage, and wisdom. At birth, Lakota boys were given an elk tooth charm to ward off ill fortune and to promote a long life. Some of that wild mystery persists to this day, and few people are more enamored with elk than those who hunt them. Across North America, sportsmen and conservationists have worked to protect elk and elk habitat, successfully restoring the population to over a million individuals from steady declines in the past few centuries. Biologists have even introduced elk to other countries, where they flourish.

There is still much to learn from these majestic animals. I recently spoke with veteran biologist Tom Toman, director of science and planning at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). RMEF is one of the leading conservation organizations for elk in North America, and has worked to conserve more than 6.6 million acres of habitat and reestablish herds in states such as Wisconsin, Virginia, Missouri, and Kentucky. Tom said there are a lot of interesting facts about elk that hunters may have missed, and I have included some of them below. Some of these may surprise you.

1. An overabundance of old trees can be bad for elk

Elk live in forests, so therefore more trees equal more elk habitat, right? Well, not exactly. It comes as little surprise that habitat is the most pressing issue for elk in North America, but as Tom explained, old trees are actually hurting elk populations.

“Our forest lands, whether on public or private land, are overstuffed with trees,” he told me over the phone. “The American public just loves trees, but in the forest where the elk live, too many trees block sunlight from getting to the forest floor. We’re not growing grasses and forbs, which are key to elk nutrition.”

What is needed are young forests, also known as early-successional habitats, that allow elk herds to thrive. Opening up tree-choked landscapes promotes the growth of low-lying vegetation, which are beneficial to elk and other wildlife.

“We’d like to see a lot more biodiversity out there so we’re really trying to encourage more thinning and more prescribed burning,” Tom said. “It’s not just for elk. There are a wide variety of bird species, small animal species, and big game animals that really benefit from the habitat work we do for elk.”

2. Elk will eat meat

Just like deer, elk will very, very rarely eat meat. Should hunters be afraid for their lives when elk turn carnivorous? Well, no. For the most part, elk seem to constrain themselves to snacking on the occasional bird nest and nestlings. According to the US Geological Society, researchers confirmed that elk and deer will raid bird nests, such as that of the savannah sparrow, for a quick nutritional boost.

“Some of these animals really are omnivorous,” said Pam Pietz, a wildlife biologist at the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in North Dakota. “If they come across a nest, where the food doesn’t move or run away, they’ll take advantage of it.”

3. Elk can beat horses in short races

Elk can reach a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour. In comparison, the average horse can hit 29 mph while galloping, with a theoretical maximum of 55 mph. The Guinness Book of World Records states that the fastest race speed ever recorded was achieved by a horse named “Winning Brew,” which was able to run just under 44 mph.

Over rough terrain such as snow, wild elk will easily beat their domesticated cousins by a long shot.

4. Cow elk can grow antlers

Every now and then, there will be reports of a hunter bagging a female deer with a rack. The same phenomenon also happens with elk, although it’s much rarer.

“When you’re dealing with a lot of animals, it’s not unheard of to find strange things,” Tom said.

He shared a story of when he received a panicked call from a hunter a few years back. The hunter, who had a permit for antlered elk, was in shock after he discovered that the elk he harvested had a rack, but lacked other “bull parts.” Sure enough, when Tom arrived to investigate, the biologist found that the elk was anatomically a cow—except one with some questionable headgear. He told the worried hunter that the elk was not in violation: he had an antlered elk permit and that was what he bagged.

Hormonal imbalances cause female elk to develop antlers. While antlered deer females can still reproduce normally, it is not known whether the same holds true for elk. Learn more about how female ungulates grow antlers here.

5. Elk have a maximum vertical jump of eight feet

Despite being large and in charge, elk are surprisingly agile creatures. Not only can they leap a maximum of eight feet, they can look cool while doing it. Check out this herd of elk make short work of a low fence.

6. Ancient elk once had tusks

Those wicked-looking fangs aren't for drinking blood. This musk deer resides in a Czech zoo.
Modern deer species also have tusks, such as this Siberian musk deer. File image from Николай Усик on the Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that in ages past, the rounded, thumb-sized teeth in the upper jaws of elk were actually tusks—fighting tusks that were used to ward off predators and to engage rivals during the rut.

“Over millions of years, the canines regressed,” stated Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Montana Outdoors. “Meanwhile, the animals’ antlers evolved into large, showy headgear that acted as a defensive tool. Yet even with their tusks shrunk to mere bumps, elk still retain some ancient behaviors associated with the teeth. When an elk curls its top lip to reveal its ivories, the ‘sneer’ represents a threat posture reminiscent of its prehistoric relatives. Baring canines often precedes charging and striking with antlers or front hooves—the weapons of modern elk.”

Elk traded their “fighting teeth” for large, disposable racks. Not all deer species have made the same deal with Darwin, however, and modern species like the Chinese water deer still retain sharp fangs—albeit much smaller and than those of ancient elk.

7. A bull elk’s harem can include up to 20 cows

Elk usually stick to single-sex groups but during the rut, a single dominant bull will maintain a harem of females. The bull elk will then defend this harem, which can have as many as 20 cows, against other challengers. While that may seem like living the life, the stress of keeping a harem and few opportunities to feed means that a bull elk can lose up to 20 percent of his body weight during this time. Those in less than peak physical condition are less likely to survive winter afterwards.

8. Elk can communicate using their feet

It’s hard to miss an elk’s bugling. It’s loud and it carries for miles. Yet elk also have a quieter way to communicate and signal each other, and it’s in their feet.

“They have an interesting way they communicate with their legs too,” Tom said. “They have bones in their ankles that make a little cracking or popping noise when they walk, so they know if there’s another elk walking up on them or something else. [Elk] seem to be able to use it to communicate very well.”

9. Lewis and Clark relied upon elk for a ton of stuff

If it wasn’t for elk, the Corps of Discovery Expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would likely have failed. Although there were only 33 members on the expedition, the crew ate their weight in elk. According to the National Park Service, there were times on the journey when the expedition ate at least one elk per day since hunting was more efficient for food than fishing. In addition, Lewis and Clark used elk skin and tallow for candles, bedding, clothing, cooking fat, and even binding for their journals.

10. Elk can breed with red deer

A red deer stag. Images from Bill Ebbesen on the Wikimedia Commons.
A red deer stag. Images from Bill Ebbesen on the Wikimedia Commons.

Up until recently, scientists thought that elk and European red deer were the same animal, but modern research revealed that the two were actually distinct species. One of the biggest reasons why biologists considered elk and red deer the same species was that, despite being separated by an ocean, the two animals can breed fertile hybrids.

Red deer are generally smaller than North American elk and have longer tails.

11. Elk are the favorite prey of wolves

According to Tom, wolves just can’t get enough of elk. In fact, from the northern gray wolf to the Mexican wolf, Tom said that the predators prefer elk over any other prey.

“I don’t know if it’s related to energy economics or something else,” he said. “Perhaps if they drag down an elk, it’ll feed the pack for much longer time for the energy expended. Elk seems to be the primary species for them, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Idaho, Wyoming, Canada, or even Arizona or New Mexico, they prefer elk over deer when they’re available.”

12. Wolves don’t kill the most elk, bear and mountain lions do

On the flip side, Tom explained that the impact of wolves on elk may take a backseat to other predators such as mountain lions and bears. From what he has seen in Western states, mountain lions take the greatest proportion of elk, and also have a better public image as well. Tom chalked it up to the cats’ “stealthy” lifestyle.

“I think sometimes people aren’t even aware that mountain lions are there, while wolves will get out, run around barking like a dog, howling and everything. You don’t have the be a wildlife watcher to know if wolves are in the neighborhood or not,” he said. “It turned out that mountain lions are a far large predator of elk and elk calves, and they are followed up by bears.”

The impact of wolf predation upon elk depends on the area and how big the wolf population is. In states like Minnesota, where the wolf population is high, their impact on elk herds has been more greatly felt. In general, Tom said that predator management includes all predators, not just the ones that are the most controversial.

“It’s not just wolves, its also black bears, brown bears, mountain lions, and other predators,” he stated. “All of them take a toll.”

13. Elk antlers can grow more than an inch every day

An elk’s antlers can grow more than an inch a day in the summer. The amount of antler growth an elk undergoes, as well as total antler size, depends on how on how soon and how much sunlight the bull gets. Sunlight elevates testosterone in bulls, which in turn triggers the growth of antlers. By the time they’re finished, antlers can weigh as much as 40 pounds.

What other fascinating elk facts have you learned? Share them with us in the comments.

Image courtesy Bureau of Land Management

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  • skiptrl

    The best fact of all. Elk tastes great!

  • R.w.

    I dont believe number 12 at all.Cats and bears were the only constent.Elk heards were steady, then came the wolf and every thing changed. ive lived in MT for 54 years hunted for 42 of them, wolves really hurt the elk population.

    • AnotherIP

      On the flip side, elk and other predators (including wolves) lived together with steady populations historically. It’s likely this is some kind of settling in period for them. The elk getting used to how wolves hunt again (it’s been several decades and generations). And wolf populations expanding with the excess prey supply (and eventually retracting when there’s not enough) to fit their niche in all of it. Similar to the fluctuations of the snowshoe hare and lynx.

      We could probably help it by slowing the wolves some, keep the populations from swinging too wildly while everyone gets settled in. But nobody seems to be thinking of that.

    • Justthefactsjack

      Ya number 12 would of been true 15 years ago but now, we all know wolves have decimated the game animal populations

  • Pederbuilt

    On point #7, the largest bull I’ve seen on the hoove was out in Colorado. He had to have been well over 400″, and had a harem of 40-50 cows. He was a stud to say the least. I wish I would have gotten a picture of him.

  • colt45

    hello, I have been in all the studies that might have been mentioned and the reason for the decreased in elk in the northern rockies is from all the things mentioned in this article are correct, but the part about the wolfs. As a sportsmen ,I WOULD LIKE TO ADD TO THE REASON WHY WOLFS LIKE ELK, it takes on average less then a minutes to take down a elk where it take hours to take down a bison, which is why they where bought to the ecosystem so what would you choose, and on the mountain it may take down a elk,but it is not often, because they are in high rocky areas where most elk don’t stay. So to sum this up it sounds like we need to log areas again and also let the RMEF support butting wolfs in all the states that they have moved elk too, so we are all on the same playing field.

    • Rw

      you do remember the Gardner hunt? If you dont they use to give out atleast 800 cow tags ive seen it go as high as 1200 tags if a bad year, they did this for as long as I can remember. This was for the northern heard. Well after they reintroduced the wolf it took a few years but the wolves wiped out that hunt, it no longer happens why not because of the cats or the bears they have always been there, the wolf. He will kill for fun and food.

  • Steve Windbigler

    Tom, Why don’t they buy farmed elk and release them, instead of govt or state raised elk. When they reintroduce elk in the wild? Farmed deer follow usda protocol and are cwd monitored, when state or govt deer are not. There has been state and govt released elk from CWD positive herds, putting are other herds and grain trade at risk.

  • Tom Hulme

    Not sure I will believe the fact that Elk can outrun a horse. I’ve roped an Elk and they couldn’t out run me on my horse. My horse is not a race horse either. I know several people that have roped an Elk. So there is a fact!

  • Tom Hulme

    Also, Wolves kill for the sport of it as well. How many of you have watched them pressure an Elk till they get it to run and then it’s over. They kill it, eat very little and off to the next one. Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and states around us that have had Wolves like we have here are Elk depleted. Our herds are down to less than 30% of what we used to have a few years ago. You can love a Wolf all you want, they have to eat to live and with so many, they kill the easiest prey, an Elk. When they are gone, then what. Idiots introduced the Larger Breed of Wolf to our States. The leader of Idiots was a Clinton who approved and the people who didn’t think it through. Someone once said to me, I don’t need a Wolf Tag to shoot a Wolf….He is Right! Our Fathers before us got rid of them years ago for a reason….Think about it!

    • Dean Peterson

      I’m assuming you have some proof. There nothing the human hunter hates more competition. Every predator is maligned by the so-called sportsman.
      What you apparently don’t know, and only God knows why you can’t figure this out, is that wolves and elk have co-existed for eons. If you don’t know loss of habitat is the number one reason for reduced numbers of elk, well, there doesn’t look like there’s much help for you.

      • Jaclyn Kane

        Just so you are aware Dean, Tom is pointing out that it is the “introduced” non-native larger wolf that is depleting the herds up here. Our native wolves-almost gone, do not disturb the elk in the same way. The non-native species of wolf now growing in record numbers is huge, much more ferocious than our native smaller species and the new species will kill the native species when they come across them. Before you answer someone actually read what they are saying.

      • Dean Peterson

        And just what is this super wolf you speak of Jaclyn?

  • Tom Hulme

    #1, Elk were a Flat Lands Animal till we drove them to the Mtns…… They still prefer flat lands if not bothered. Wow, I wish who thought they knew so much about Elk would have done some research and talked to more people. I’ve learned some of the most knowledgeable people about Elk are Elite Bow Hunters. We study them and know them to be successful hunters. Wolves study them too and are very successful hunters. Must have been a Wolf lover that wrote some of this.

    • Solomon

      Tom, elk were not only a flat lands animal, their range once included almost the entire United States. Yes this includes the flat lands but elk were present in the mountains as well. So we didn’t “drive them to the mountains” , they were always in the mountains, they’re just no longer on the prairies as well.

  • AroneTheBest

    im doing a project on the elk and i wanna know how do they survive the cold

  • MB-arrow

    Does anyone know how long bull elk will fight? Hours?

  • Professor Fartsparkles

    The last one sounds painful. I can’t imagine a body part growing that fast.