Elk

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About Elk

The Elk is the largest species of deer, and one of the largest species of wildlife in North America. A male elk, with it's magnificant antlers, is truly breathtaking. Unfortunately, the antler-less females are far more likely to be seen ... but if you want to see a male, the best time is mid-September through October during the rut.


Where to See Elk

Elk are found in a large number of places in the western US. Listed below are the best spot to see one.


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Elk at Yellowstone


More About Elk

Elk are also called wapiti, a Native American word that means "light-colored deer." Bull (male) 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.


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 Range

National Elk Refuge, Wyoming

The best place to see Elk, without question, is Wyoming's National Elk Refuge. The National Elk Refuge works to provide, preserve, restore, and manage winter habitat for the nationally significant Jackson Elk Herd. The migration of the Jackson Hole Elk is the longest herd migration of elk in the lower 48 states. It is the world's largest wintering concentration of elk.

Elk and Bison roam free on the 18,500-acre National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge , 45 miles north of Missoula in Montana. These Elk and Bison graze on mountain prairie grasses with other ungulates such as white-tailed and mule deer, pronghorns and bighorn sheep. Visitors often see black bears and coyotes; a look overhead reveals eagles, hawks and other birds. -- Jean Arthur


Yellowstone National Park

The other truly great location is Yellowstone National Park. They are all over the park, and sightings are guaranteed. Mammoth Host Springs and The Lamar Valley is where they gather in the greatest numbers. I saw quite a few on the Western Entrance (the road to the Montana entrance).


Colorado

More than 3,000 animals, including elk, moose and bighorn sheep, dwell in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. One of the best viewing sites is the nine-mile stretch of Trail Ridge Road between the Kawuneeche Visitor Center and the Colorado River Trailhead, where animals graze on relatively level terrain. In Horseshoe Park, off Highway 34, elk, coyotes and bighorn sheep graze in meadows around glacier-formed kettle ponds known as Sheep Lakes. • Recommended by Lois Friedland


More info on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. With a population of about 2,400 elk living in the Estes Park area, it’s no wonder why these massive animals are a major attraction for visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park. Fall is an especially popular time to enjoy viewing elk and listen to the bulls bugle. To some, the mating period, known as “the rut,” is as synonymous with autumn in the mountains as is the changing color of aspen leaves. It’s a season marked by the sounds of the elk, as well as the sights. Beginning in mid September and continuing through October, the mating call is known as bugling – a bellow that escalates to a squealing whistle that ends with a grunt. That’s how the bull advertises his fitness to cows, and warning to other bulls to stay away.

Elk Bucks in Rocky Mountain National Park

The prime elk viewing areas on the East Side of Rocky Mountain National Park:

  • Moraine Park
  • Horseshoe Park
  • Upper Beaver Meadows

Prime elk viewing areas on the West Side of Rocky Mountain National Park:

  • Harbison Meadow
  • Holzwarth Meadow
  • Throughout the Kawuneeche Valley

Prime elk viewing areas in Estes Park:

  • 18-hole golf course
  • 9-hole golf course


Michigan

The Pigeon River Country State Forest (see Pigeon River Elk Range) in Michigan's northeast Lower Peninsula is one of the few places east of the Mississippi where you routinely see wild elk. You also see whitetail deer, coyotes, loons and bald eagles. The forest also has lots of black bears, though they are a fairly rare sighting. ~~ Eric Sharp


Kentucky

In Kentucky, located in the national recreation area known as Land Between the Lakes (between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake), Kentucky's only drive-through elk and bison prairie gives visitors up-close views of these majestic animals. The Elk & Bison Prairie (EBP) is a restoration of a native habitat lost more than a century ago. Elk and bison have been reintroduced to this area and roam freely within a 700-acre range. In addition to the Elk and Bison, numerous other wildlife species also thrive in the prairie, such as wild turkeys, a variety of birds, small game, and prairie mammals. Open daily, the 3.5-mile driving route includes roadside exhibits about the herd and other native wildlife. Steve Vest


Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Washington

The 40,366-acre Oak Creek unit is west of Naches. A winter feeding program is conducted annually to help reduce conflict with neighboring landowners. Elk and bighorn sheep are fed during the winter. Because they are fed, you are guaranteed to see the animals, with closeup views as short as 10 feet. Bald and Golden Eagles are also plentiful during the winter months. See Oak Creek Wildlife Area and also the Feeding Program:

  • Driving Directions: From I-5 south of Olympia, go east on Hwy 12. HQ entrance is 10 miles east of Rimrock Retreat on left (north) side. From I-82 at Yakima, west on Hwy 12 through Naches. Four mi. west of Naches, turn left at Junction to White Pass. Proceed 2 miles to the park HQ entrance on right (north) side.
  • Parking/Restroom Information: Very large gravel parking area and viewing platform, with 3 vault toilets open year-round. Visitor center open 9a-4p during winter months (when elk feeding is underway) and staffed with Wildlife Education Corps volunteers.
  • Other Information: Viewing sites require a Discover Pass or WDFW Vehicle Access Pass to park Apr 1 - Dec 1. Large portion of upland range above HQ feedsite is closed March and April to all public entry to protect big game during winter recovery period.


Baniff National Park, Canada

Banff National Park is one of the premier places in the world in which to photograph elk. From big bulls in the fall to cows and calves in the spring, Banff offers up a tremendous variety of elk photography opportunities in all seasons. One of my own personal favourite times of year to find and photograph elk in the park is during the cold, short days of winter, when the big bulls congregrate along the Lake Minnewanka Road and the start of the Bow Valley Parkway, as well as along Vermilion Lakes Drive. Winter elk are often a bit more docile, too, so while you don’t want to walk right up to them, it is often possible to safely photograph them from 50-75 metres (yards) away with a lens in the range of 200-400mm. Mid to late morning often provides the best light, as does early to mid afternoon (when it’s a bit warmer). Adventurous souls can also try the Kananaskis Lakes Road down in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park for more elk and fewer people. To learn more, check out my $10 e-guide to finding and photographing wildlife: How to Photograph Wildlife in the Canadian Rockies.

Happy shooting!

John E. Marriott


Photos

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Links

National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge

National Elk Refuge

Pigeon River Elk Range

Rocky Mountain National Park

Land Between the Lakes