Classification and Range
Roosevelt elk belong to the order Artiodactyla and the family Cervidae. There is not yet consensus on whether elk and the Eurasian red deer are a single species. To make it more confusing, Europeans commonly refer to moose as "elk," while they call North American elk "wapiti." The name "wapiti" comes from Shawnee and means "white rump." In the Olympic Mountains of Washington state, scientist C. Merriam Hart studied elk and named that subspecies for Theodore Roosevelt. Elk roam through western North America, Europe and central Asia. Before the 1900s, North American elk populations ranged over most of the continent. Of the original six subspecies of North American elk, only four remain and reside between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Currently, Roosevelt elk inhabit Pacific coastal rain forests and mountains, as well as the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. This subspecies also lives on the Alaskan islands, where they summer above timberline and winter in dense spruce forests, in lower valleys or on the beaches. Seasonal requirements of food, water, shelter and reproductive activity affect elk migration. During summer, elk may move upland to snow fields, to areas of stronger breezes or into water. Mountainous winter conditions of snow, flood, or rain drive elk to lower elevations.
Roosevelt elk are the largest of North American elk, with a powerful physique that enables them to swim, break through deep snow and climb into high elevations. Adult male elk (bulls) average 875 pounds (398 kg). Adult female elk (cows) average 700 pounds (318 kg). Mature bulls average 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at the shoulder and 8-9 feet (2.4 -2.7 m) in length.
The antlers of Roosevelt elk are thick and have vertical points, with a distinctive crown or three-point tip. Their antlers average 4 feet (1.2 m) in length. Research reports huge racks up to 6 feet (1.8 m) long and weighing 40 pounds (18 kg). Coloration of Roosevelt elk is darker than other elk. They have a dark brown to black neck, light brown to tan body, and beige to white rump patch. Elk replace their coats twice yearly. In the spring, they produce a lighter, reddish summer coat; in the autumn, their coat is darker and denser for winter.
Females average 19-21 years, males average 16 years. In captivity, elk live 18-22 years.
In the wild: Elk eat high quantity, low quality and varied diet of plants, such as grasses, shrubs, herbs, saplings and bark. They tend to focus on three or four key plants.
At the zoo: Keepers feed them herbivore pellets, carrots, yams, apples, romaine and alfalfa hay. The elk also eat the grass and leaves in their exhibit.
Females reach sexual maturity around two years, while males take three to four years. Young bulls rarely have a chance to mate, since mature bulls 7 to 10 years old dominate the reproductive scene. During rut season in September to October, testosterone levels in bulls rise dramatically and they fight to gain breeding access to females. Fights consist of clashing antlers, while driving the opponent back and forth.
Meanwhile, females quietly feed and seem uninterested in all this activity; they eventually favor bulls with large antlers. The successful bull acquires a "harem" of cows. He diligently herds, mates and keeps other bulls from the harem.
In late spring or early summer, after a gestation period of 8 1/2 months, the female moves away from the herd. She gives birth to a single calf that weighs an average of 33 pounds (15 kg). The calf nurses intensively for 2 1/2 months and grows rapidly, doubling its weight within two weeks of birth. Elk calves remain hidden for the first few weeks and instinctively "drop and freeze" when faced with danger. By mid-summer, groups of calves and their mothers rejoin the herd.
Elk herds consist of females and their offspring, in groups of 20-30 individuals. Elk spend much of their day seeking, eating, and digesting food with main feeding times at dawn and dusk. Adult males live alone or in small male groups, except during rut, when they join female herds.
Elk in History
For Native Americans, elk provided food, clothing, bone implements, weapons, sources of spiritualism, and items for decoration or trade. The journals of Lewis and Clark contain at least 570 references to elk. Their expedition depended on elk meat during their 1805-6 winter spent along the Pacific coast. Elk skin provided the explorers with clothing and footwear for their return trip.
Location at the Zoo
The zoo's Roosevelt elk live in the award-winning Northern Trail exhibit. The best viewing spots are behind the gray wolf exhibit near the entrance to the Northern Trail , and at the end of the boardwalk past the eagle exhibit.
Elk play an important conservation role in old growth forests. They clear impenetrable tangles of vegetation in the forest understory. This enables a wide variety of plants and animals to flourish, while simultaneously promoting a dependable food supply for the elk.
While not listed as endangered, elk face many dangers. Their natural predators include cougars and gray wolves. Predators usually kill young and old elk. Disease, starvation and winter hardships also kill elk. An estimated 10 million elk lived in North America before the 1500s, but their population dwindled to less than 100,000 by 1907. Hunters targeted elk for trophy antlers, elk "ivory" and meat. Elk antlers are also collected or stolen, then ground up and sold as traditional Asian medicines. Road building and logging decreases habitat for elk, and provides hunters easier access to elk. In 1904, the original name proposed for the Olympic National Park was "Elk National Park." The primary goal of the park was to rescue elk herds from near extinction. In the 1990s, a census therein estimated the park population at 5,000. Throughout North America, elk populations have increased to sustainable levels from near extinction at the end of the 1900s.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save mammals requires cooperation and support at the regional, national and international levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in a conservation organization of your choice. Don’t buy products made from wild animal parts. Tell your elected representatives on the national, state and local levels about the importance of preserving wild habitats and endangered species.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org find out other ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Bauer, Erwin A. 1995. Elk: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. Voyageur Press. Stillwater, MN.Moorhead, Bruce B. 1994.
The Forest Elk: Roosevelt Elk in Olympic National Park. Hindy's Enterprise, Hong Kong. Thomas, Jack Ward & Dale E.
Toweill, eds. 1982. Elk of North America: Ecology and Management. Stackpole Books. Harrisburg, PA.
Guiberson, Brenda Z. 1997. Teddy Roosevelt's Elk, Henry Holt & Co. New York, NY.