Elk in the Forest June 02, 2015 16:39

This is the essay I wrote that's included in the Mountain Habitats Block #3 Elk in the Forest pattern

The Magestic Elk

Scary Business

Overnight camping on Buffalo Peaks, Colorado, with my dad and brother was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I was ten and we’d hiked during the day and set up the tent near evening. Snuggled deep in my sleeping bag, in the middle of the night, I heard something moving outside - a lot of somethings moving right outside the tent. I was petrified but the terror started next. Loud animal sounds echoed in my ears – bugling it turned out. Elks bugling outside the tent made the entire night one shaking nightmare.

Mud Perfume

Bull elks (males) are the ones that bugle to attract the cows (females). Bulls also rub trees and will bathe in urine-soaked mud pits as attractants.2 In fall, harems of cows form during the rut or mating season. Bull elk may duel with antlers to take over another bull’s harem. Older bulls with the biggest antlers usually win. Harems are made of many females with just one or two bulls. In late May, the 35-pound calves are born spotted and scentless to avoid predators.

Frozen Lakes & Poisonous Lichen

Animal predators of elks include: bears, mountain lions, wolves and scavengers like eagles and coyotes.[1] Strange things kill elk, too. On March 21, 2015, thirty-one dead elk were found floating at the Snake and Greys Rivers intersection on the border of Wyoming and Idaho because they were trying to cross the ice, broke through and drowned. Local authorities estimate death tolls were more like fifty elk but they only found the thirty-one. In addition, Jackson Hole Daily’s Mike Koshmrl reports, “A toxic lichen that grows in the Red Rim area southwest of Rawlins has wiped out droves of elk at times. Fifty died from it in 2008 and 300 were poisoned and fell dead in 2004.”[2] Elk are also susceptible to chronic wasting disease and brucellosis.

What else eats elk? Why humans, of course! Hunting elk is big business for states. Hunters are beneficial to thinning out herds and state’s provide licenses for to keep healthy numbers. Of course, if you do not wish to hunt the 500- to 700-pound creatures and haul them out of deep woods, elk meat is available online. At elkusa.com, elk tenderloin is $34.95 per pound (minimum 2 lbs) and elk hearts are $4.79 per pound (5 lb minimum). At jhbuffalomeat.com elk jerky sticks are $9.25 for ¼ pound.

Burned Bark & Conifer Soup

Humans & bears eat elk, but what do elk call a meal? In summertime, elk eat grasses, forbs and aquatic plants. In winter, they also eat tree bark, twigs and even burned bark.[3] Burned bark and conifer soup is on the menu. Exactly how does one digest bark? Elks have four stomachs: the first for storing food and the other three for digesting.1

Even though all elks have stomachs, only the males have the distinctive antlers which have a story of their own. Antlers drop off in March. They grow back with a velvety coating which rubs off. Antlers begin hardening by late summer. By September, antlers are solid bone and can weigh up to 40 pounds.1

Antlers are so valuable that each May the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole, Wyoming has an Elkfest. Antlers are collected on the refuge and sold at auction. Only staff and Jackson District Boy Scouts are allowed to collect the antlers. Each year on overage 8,901 pounds of antlers are sold for about $101,798. This equates to $11.27 per pound.[4]

Where the Elk Are

National Elk Refuge in Wyoming is home to the Jackson Elk Herd made up of 11,000 individuals. Another spot to find massive elk populations is Yellowstone National Park which winters from 10,000 to 20,000 elk in six to seven herds. Gibbons Meadows, Elk Park and Lamar Valley are good places in Yellowstone for viewing elk.3 Distributed mostly across the western half of the U.S., elk currently number about 1 million.1

Historically though, elk lived all across the United States, Western Canada and down into Mexico. At that time, elk numbers were estimated at 10 million.1 Two of the six subspecies of North American elk are extinct: the Merriam’s used to be found in the Southwest and Mexico and the Eastern which was east of the Mississippi. Four species of North American elk remain: Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt’s in Coastal Pacific Northwest, Tule in Central California and Manitoba in the Northern Great Plains.2

Amber Elks

In 2012, Cambridge University archeologists in Northern Germany unearthed an 11,000 year-old amber figurine in the shape of a female elk. Experts claim the figurine was most likely attached to the top of a wooden staff.[5] Elk have been important for at least that long and another 11,000 years into the future if we learn to live with them and learn the way of the majestic elk.

[1] http://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/elk.htm

[2] http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/environmental/elk-herd-perishes-in-palisades-reservoir/article_4862bab8-b58b-5bb0-be23-3939b8f01c01.html

[3] http://www.rmef.org/ElkFacts.aspx

[4] http://www.fws.gov/refuge/national_elk_refuge/

[5] Veil, Stephan, et al. Antiquity, Sept 2012, Vol. 86, Issue 333, p.660-73