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Nature on Trail: Elk

Learn a bit about the life cycle of elk, and where you might be able to spy a herd of them.

By Ralph Radford

Camping at Yellowstone National Park, I was awakened by a rustling sound next to the tent. I began to think the worst—a hungry bear looking for food scraps. But then a long bugling call erupted and I knew instantly that a herd of elk was grazing in the campground.

The distinctive bugle call of the male elk is raw nature in every sense, an element of untamed wild that echoes through the valley and drifts among the trees.


You don’t need to go to Yellowstone to see this display of nature—you just need to drive to Packwood south of Mount Rainier National Park to view the South Rainier elk herd. This elk herd is one of ten herds residing in the state, according the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The South Rainier elk herd is within the original range of the Roosevelt subspecies of the North American Elk, but there is some debate if elk originally lived in this area.

Because of hunting and human impacts, there are only two species of elk in western North America today. The Roosevelt, (C.e.roosevelti) and the Rocky Mountain elk (C.e.nelsoni). Two other species have gone extinct.
The Roosevelt elk inhabits regions west of Cascade Crest, including Olympic National Park and areas around Mount St. Helens. In Washington, the Rocky Mountain elk are found in areas east of the Cascades.

The Roosevelt species is usually darker in color and the male elk have straighter antlers with less spread then the Rocky Mountain elk. The summer coat is golden brown and the winter coat is a grayish brown. Elk also have a large white or orange rump patch. Elk are often also known by a  Shawnee word, “wapiti”, which means “white rump.” A male elk can weigh between 700 and 1,100 pounds and a female generally weighs between 500 and 650 pounds. Average size is 9 feet in length and four to five feet tall.  The two species of elk have been mixed by the introduction of the Rocky Mountain elk in the 1900s to increase the population sizes.

These early introductions of the Rocky Mountain elk did the job, making the elk around Packwood one of the largest herds around. This can be testified by the local community of Packwood, where you will hear mixed reaction of talk about the elk, including some people who love the animals and go out of there way to feed them, and others who can’t stand having the elk eat their beloved plants and shrubs. These latter landowners are easy to spot—their properties look like military compounds with large fencing and posts to stop the elk. It is not unusual to see an elk herd in downtown Packwood crossing the highway and strolling between the coffee shop and pizza parlor.

Elk reside in a variety of habitats with differing food sources, including semi-open woodlands, mountain meadows and logged areas. These open areas provide edible grass, and shrubs that become an essential winter food source. Golf courses and other man-made environments are also helping provide a new food source for these animals.

Elk have a stomach that is divided into four chambers to break down the leaves and grasses they digest.

Elk form breeding harems and the male bull elk is the master of the harem.  The bull elk is challenged by other males to keep his harem and battles during the fall session with other male bulls to keep his cows. The bull elk can eat up to a pound a day after the rutting season is over. The female elk are normally already fat and healthy and enter the winter months pregnant. The cow elk gives birth to a single calf between late may and early June.

If you’re out on lowland trails or in the vicinity of Packwood this fall and winter, stop and appreciate the beauty of these graceful and majestic animals.

Photo by Ralph Radford.