Here at Wildwood Zoo, we have a small elk herd that consists of two bulls and five cows. The mature bull elk, named Lincoln, was born June 1st in 2011 and joined the zoo's herd in 2013. Our young bull, born on July 2nd of 2019 right here at the zoo, is named Peanut. The five cows range in age from one to nineteen.
Elk range in color from dark brown in winter to tan in summer and have a characteristic buff-colored rump. The head, neck, belly and legs are darker than both the back and sides. A dark shaggy mane hangs from the neck to the chest. Most males are 10 percent larger than females and may weigh twice as much. Elk are related to deer but are much larger than most of their relatives. A bull (male) elk's antlers may reach 4 feet above its head, so that the animal towers 9 feet 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 the winter, elk 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 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 migrate into higher elevations in the spring. Come winter they will seek lower elevations. During the winter months elk will seek sheltered valleys with wooded areas to protect them from the wind and provide browsing vegetation.
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 wild: 10-15 years
In human care: 10-20 years
Elk are ruminants and therefore have four-chambered stomachs. Unlike white-tailed deer and moose which are primarily browsers, elk have a similarity to cattle as they are primarily grazers, but like other deer, they also browse. Elk have a tendency to do most of their feeding in the mornings and evenings, seeking sheltered areas in between feedings to digest. Their diets vary somewhat depending on the season with native grasses being a year round supplement, tree bark being consumed in winter and forbs and tree sprouts during the summer. Elk consume an average of 20 pounds of various vegetation daily. Particularly fond of aspen sprouts which rise in the spring, elk have had some impact on aspen groves which have been declining in some regions where elk exist.