Western Canada’s Elk – The Ultimate Info Source

Are you obsessed with elk? Perhaps even an elkoholic? Whether you’re a newbie or a grizzled old pro, here’s everything you need to know about the iconic Western elk.

Western Canada is a dangerous place for an elkoholic. Temptation is now just about everywhere. For an elkoholic, hunting elk is an almost irresistible urge. Eastern BC, western Alberta, central Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba are the best areas to find these animals, but there are elk in harvestable numbers now found in numerous pockets across the west from Victoria, BC to Victoria Beach, MB.

Elkoholism is understandable. As game animals, elk have a lot going for them. They are large animals but challenging to hunt, being wary — almost elusive — even when relatively close to human settlement. The males have large attractive antlers, but the true trophy bulls may inhabit only the most remote corners of their range.

What’s In A Name?

This species has a confusing history of common and scientific names in North America, starting with a mislabeling by early European immigrants. The word “elk” is from a German name for the animal that we in North America know as moose, and in Europe, our “elk” is called a red deer or European stag. To try to reduce some of this naming confusion, “wapiti” was introduced as a common name for North American elk, but it never really caught on. Scientists have not helped elk’s murky nomenclature. The current scientific name for the animal that we know as “elk” is Cervus elaphus.  Cervus is Latin for “deer” and elaphus is Greek for “deer.”

In the 1700s when the current animal classification system was developed, North American elk were labeled Cervus canadensis, and the name Cervus elaphus was reserved for the European red deer. In the 1960s, though, biologists determined that the “red deer group” of ungulates, which includes our elk, is circumpolar, that is, it is the same species in northern Europe, Asia and North America. So, our Canadian elk and European red deer are now considered to be sub-species of Cervus elaphus.

Elk History

Elk are relative newcomers to North America, although the fossil history for them goes back a million years to the dry hills of southwestern Asia. During the ice ages, the most recent which receded only about 10,000 years ago, a broad isthmus of grassland, where the shallow Bering Sea is now, connected Asia and North America. Asian elk found a toehold in the ice-free areas of Alaska, and colonized much of the rest of North America as the continental glaciers melted. Elk prefer semi-open country and as the Alaskan landscape gradually came to be dominated by dense coniferous forests, the habitat was no longer suitable and Alaskan elk disappeared. Slightly further south, though, elk came to colonize most of the rest of the continent.

At one time, there were six subspecies of elk in North America. Two are now basically extinct: eastern elk which were found in Ontario, Quebec and eastern USA, and Merriam’s elk, which was restricted to the mountains of Arizona and northern Mexico.  California’s tule elk are not extinct, but are no longer widely distributed in state. Manitoba elk were once found in large numbers on the Great Plains from Saskatchewan to Texas but are now thriving only in pockets within their former Canadian range. Healthy populations of Roosevelt elk still inhabit the coastal mountains and forests from Oregon to northern Vancouver Island. However, Rocky Mountain elk are by far the most successful of the original six subspecies, and are still found in very good numbers from northern BC and Alberta south to Colorado.

Elk Biology & Behaviour

North American elk are the second largest member of the deer family after moose. They have a robust body on long slender legs. Bulls weigh 300 to 400 kilograms (660 to 880 pounds) and cows about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) less. Both sexes have similar pelage, a dark brown head and neck, a lighter grey-brown body and a distinct, creamy white rump patch. Of course, only bulls grow antlers, ranging in size from spikes on yearlings, to the large branched racks of older animals. At maturity, elk antlers consist of a heavy, cylindrical main beam, sweeping up and back from the skull, with six or more well-spaced pointed tines projecting at right angles, and usually forward, from the main beam. The antler set from a big bull elk is a grand trophy.

Elk antlers start growing from specialized cells on the top of the skull called pedicles.  Both male and female elk have pedicles, but they are only activated by the male hormone testosterone, which is released by glands in response to the varying amount of daylight that is received through the eyes. The growing antlers are covered with a network of blood vessels carrying the raw materials for construction and a protective covering of “velvet.” Antlers start as relatively soft cartilage, which is gradually mineralized with tri calcium phosphate as they grow to become hard bony structures. When antlers are full grown, the blood supply is cut off, the velvet dies and then falls or is rubbed off.  Newly exposed antlers are clean and white, but quite quickly, a reaction between oxygen and the plant juices collected when the bull cleans off the velvet, stains antlers to the more familiar dark tan colour.

Antlers are deciduous, that is, a new set is grown each year. Elk antler growth starts in May and they are fully developed by late August, among the fastest growing material in the animal world. The most important use for antlers is to drive off rival bulls while collecting a harem of cows during the September rut. Just the sight of an obviously superior rack may be enough to discourage a junior bull from challenging for the right to breed the harem. If the encounter involves two more equally matched bulls, they may pace the ground together on parallel paths, tapping antlers until one decides that he is not prepared to fight for the harem. If the pacing does not decide a victor, then the antlers come into play as weapons in bull-to-bull combat. The opponents crash antlers, pushing and twisting until one is put off balance or is injured and concedes defeat. A serious bull elk fight occasionally results in the death of one of the combatants. The victor then claims the right to breed the females in the harem of up to 20 cows. Courtship and breeding can last into October. After that, antlers have limited purpose. For other members of the deer family like mule deer and moose, the pedicles reclaim some of the minerals at the base of each antler and thus severed, antlers drop off during the winter. However, bull elk often retain their antlers through winter, even as late as April. The metabolic cost of carrying this extra weight all winter must be offset by an advantage, such as access to better food supply. New antlers begin to grow almost immediately.

A unique and interesting component of elk breeding is the bull vocalization called bugling.  This is a piercing, whistle-like call that starts as two low notes then rises to a high pitch for a second or two before dropping suddenly to a quick series of grunts or snorts.  The function of the bugle is to announce a bull’s territory and warn other bulls away and thus avoid having to fight with antlers.  Elk bugling starts in late August, peaks in mid-September but may continue well into November.

The elk bugle is one of the most thrilling sounds of a misty dawn, and is likely one of the things that draws an elk hunter back year after year.

Elkoholism is a disease easily caught, but fortunately for Western Canadian hunters there is ample opportunity to satisfy the temptation.

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