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and I'm an unrepentant one at that.

Elk fascinate me, they make deer seem a bore. They're huge, fast, smart, gorgeous, and elusive.

Take ten seconds and click on the vid, it'll take less time than reading these sentences did.

The partially grown calf above is bigger than most deer.

Elk usually don't run away, they walk, they don't need to run. Almost as fast as a  horse, on uneven terrain they are faster. In the woods, if you go looking for elk, with evil intent, you will most often see their ass end disappearing into the trees as they walk away, if you even see them that is, most of the time they've just walked away from you before you arrived.

When you come on a place elk have recently been it smells like a barnyard, except elk if you know what I mean. It hangs in the air. They are big animals, they have a smell. They walk differently than deer or moose, cross an elk track snowed over and it's still obvious. They walk over things I have to climb over.

And actually an elk is more of a deer than a deer, I'll explain.

Elk aren't really elk, they are wapiti which is the Native American name for the critter. We only partially call them that to be cool. (language note: different native American, and you got a different language, and therefore elk have a different name). The word elk was used in Europe to mean moose, and when settlers came here the wapiti looked so large they were called elk. This has led to lots of confusion especially when Northern Europeans tell Americans that they are going elk hunting in Finland. So remember elk are wapiti and moose are elk, but I'll continue to use the American way of saying things here for simplicity. All of the wapiti, red deer, and others that look like it, that are spread across Europe and the new world, are of the Genus Cervus, which along with seven other genus make up the tribe called "true deer". See? All those other deer are fakes! The True Deer along with another tribe which includes the muntjac are all of the subfamily Cervinae. Just as a "by the way" muntjack are the oldest type of deer, some even have large canines.

Moose and white tailed deer and mule deer and black tailed deer, the deer we are all familiar with, belong to an entirely different subfamily. After watching elk for a while you notice just how different from deer they are. Our elk, the wapiti, (don't start arguing subspecies, please) are the largest of the large, but there used to be an even larger one. The prehistoric elk was moose sized.

Elk are a cold loving species of open plains. They are much more social than deer. They talk or communicate to each other with grunts and squeals and barks and bugles, and a plethora of sounds. When you are amongst a herd of elk spread out through the trees you can hear them more than see them. A hunter quickly learns the warning bark, which means you've been busted and they are all about to run away. Camped in elk country during the early fall you will hear the unearthly bugling, especially in the evening or early morning, the sound can carry over hills for miles.

Above is a migration, spring unless I'm mistaken. Elk are the only large animal we still have in the US that migrate so far and in such large numbers. There is no room for buffalo on our great plains, we're too  busy making wheat, corn, and soy. Elk herds are only limited by the size of the winter range that will support them, and our willingness to save it.

In late spring elk are already at altitude eating the new green shoots and then sometime around June first they all drop their calves. They do so all at the same time in an effort to "flood the zone". Heavily pregnant females and newborn calves are preyed on with a ferocity informed by a long hungry winter, by cougars, wolves, bear, and coyote. Within a very few days the calves are fast enough to run away from predators.

Calf survival is a measure of the health of the herd. Less than 25 calves to 100 cows and you have a herd in decline.

Elk spend the summer gorging on the most tender growth they can find, with the highest nutritional value. Not all green grass is digestible by them, some contains chemicals that are too much work to digest. Much of the year elk take in less food than they need, winters are a time of relying on stored fat and vitamins.

Disturbances to elk in the winter, late spring, or summer can have catastrophic affects on not only their unborn calves which might well be aborted, but on the very lives of the cows themselves. I like watching elk, but I do so from binocular distance, and in the late winter through spring I don't even go to places I know they will probably be.

That's another thing that is different about elk. They aren't spread out evenly across the land like say whitetail in Virginia. If you have a hundred square miles of habitat there might be none at certain times of the year, or there could be two thousand.

A self guided hunt on public lands in the Rocky Mountains is not easy. Four out of five hunters fail, the highest failure rate of any of the deer. And don't forget, that failure rate includes those who pay a guide to do the hard work, it also includes the late season private land hunts when they are hearded up on hay fields. Of the four that fail they spend five days or more walking up and down steep mountains off trail above 10,000 feet in winter conditions. Imagine doing that for four years, and still on that fifth year you go out again, up and out before light, temps in the single digits, some say wapiti means ghost, other think it's an obsession.


Valerius Geist book for layperson


Originally posted to Hunting and Fishing Kos on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 04:34 AM PST.

Also republished by Backyard Science and Community Spotlight.

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