Average lifespan in the wild: 8 to 12 years

Size: Height at the shoulder, 4 to 5 ft (1.2 to 1.5 m)

Weight: 325 to 1,100 lbs (147 to 499 kg)

Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:

Elk are also called wapiti, a Native American word that means “light-colored deer.” Elk are related to deer but are much larger than most of their relatives. A bull (male) elk’s antlers may reach 4 feet (1.2 meters) above its head, so that the animal towers 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall.

Bull elk lose their antlers each March, but they begin to grow them back in May in preparation for the late-summer breeding season.

In early summer, elk migrate to high mountain grazing grounds where the cows (females) will give birth. Each cow typically has a single calf, which can stand by the time it is 20 minutes old.

During the late summer breeding season the bugling of bull elk echoes through the mountains. These powerful animals strip the velvet off their new antlers using them in violent clashes that determine who gets to mate with whom. Males with the bigger antlers, typically older animals, usually win these battles and dominate small herds.

In the winter, wapiti reconvene into larger herds, though males and females typically remain separate. The herds return to lower valley pastures where elk spend the season pawing through snow to browse on grass or settling for shrubs that stand clear of the snow cover.

Elk were once found across much of North America but they were killed off and driven to take refuge in more remote locations. Today they live primarily in western North America, especially in mountainous landscapes such as Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge and Yellowstone National Park. Some eastern U.S. states have reintroduced small elk herds into heavily wooded wilderness areas.

Elk Biology & Behavior: Scents

Bull Scent; Rubs, Scrapes, Wallows and Self Impregnation

Scents (pheromones and hormones) are used to express dominance, breeding readiness and as a priming source to help synchronize breeding readiness between the sexes. Bull elk use scents as short-range communication by self impregnating, putting scent on themselves and by leaving scent on rubs and in wallows. Scent left on rubs from Apocrine glands on the skin near the antlers and in the velvet itself may tell other bulls in the area that a dominant bull is using the area, and which bull it is. Most of the scents associated with bull elk are the scents left on the bull after it scrapes or wallows. Scrapes are often formed when the bull arises from its bed. Upon rising, the bull may “horn” or dig up the ground with its antlers; it may also paw the ground.

Wallows are formed when a bull makes a scrape in a wet area, often in a marsh, pond, spring, or creek bottom. While making a scrape or wallow the bull’s stomach may flutter up and down (palpitation), and the bull may urinate on its legs, belly and neck. It also urinates on the ground. Some experts claim there is a gland or glands just in front of the penal shaft, where the bull frequently urinates on itself. This area is called the “rut spot” and if there are glands there they may serve the same purpose as the tarsal glands of white-tailed deer, whereby the animal uses the scent from this area as a recognition scent.

After the bull has created a rub or wallow it may lie down and roll on the ground, getting urine-laced water or mud on it’s body, neck, head and antlers. This often leaves the body of the elk darker than normal. This dark colored body is thought to be used by dominant bulls to intimidate subdominant bulls. Because the bull frequently rubs its antlers in the dirt, the formerly light-colored antlers begin are coated with dirt, which turns them brown. I’ve often seen cows smell, lick and chew on the antlers of a bull. Bulls may roar, bugle or grunt while scraping and wallowing.

The urine-testosterone scent on the bull’s body may help cows identify individual bulls, and help keep the cows near the bull during the rut. The scent may also induce cows to come into estrus in preparation for breeding. Bulls may also thrash nearby bushes and the outer limbs of trees before or after scraping or wallowing, leaving forehead scent on the vegetation. A spruce tree with small broken limbs around the perimeter of the tree is a sign that a bull may have been sparring with the tree. The scent left at rubs, scrapes and wallows tells other bulls there is another bull using the area, and which bull it is.

Cow Scents

Cow elk have their own individual recognition scent, which is a combination of urine and scent from modified sweat glands on the underside of the tail. Cows also have glands on their rumps, near the anus, which may contribute to their individual scent. When they are in estrus cows also give off the smell of estrogen.

Other Scents

Unlike White-tailed deer, elk do not have interdigital glands between their hooves, but the dribbling of urine while they walk may serve as a tracking scent. Elk do have large metatarsal glands that may be used to express alarm like deer. I’ve noticed that the area below the metatarsal gland is stained darker than the rest of the leg on most bulls. Elk also have a large pre-orbital gland that opens when the bull bugles. This gland may have its own scent used for dominance, and to attract cows. It may also be left on trees and brush during rubbing and thrashing. There may also be a cheek gland, used to deposit scent when elk chew the bark on aspens and rub their head and neck on trees.