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Graphic: What About Rocky Mountain Elk?

Photo: Captain Hook Elk
"Captain Hook" surveys arid lands of the Columbia Basin.

Graphic: Background Information

What are Rocky Mountain elk?
Next time you drive out Highway 240 toward Vantage in winter and early spring, look closely, and you might see a herd of Rocky Mountain elk on the Fitzner/Eberhardt Arid Land Ecology (ALE) Reserve. Rocky Mountain elk are the largest wildlife species inhabiting the shrub-steppe region. A small number of elk moved onto the ALE Reserve in 1972, most likely from the Cascade Mountains. By 1998, the herd had grown in size to nearly 800 animals that range primarily on ALE and nearby lands.

What do Rocky Mountain elk look like?
The most recognizable feature of these gentle giants--besides their high-pitched bugle call--is their antlers. A bull elk's antlers will grow as long as 6 feet and weigh as much as 30 pounds. Elk have a body weight up to three times that of mule deer and may weigh 500-1200 pounds. The body of an adult elk is dark reddish-brown. Bulls have a chestnut-brown neck and mane.

Mature bulls can be identified in herds at a distance of a mile or more because they often are much lighter in color (almost white) in contrast to cows and yearling bulls. When calves are born in early June, their coat remains spotted until late summer. In late summer, an elk's coat changes to a brownish-gray color.

How do elk live?
Elk spend most of their lives in family groups (females and offspring) that often come to form huge herds of 100 or more during late fall and winter. They can live in a variety of habitats as long as they find enough shelter, water, and plenty of space without human interference. Elk on ALE spend most of their time in open lowland areas, except during the calving period in April and May. They are more active at night. Because little vegetation exists in the shrub-steppe to hide their movements, they may use darkness as a form of concealment. During the day, elk use sagebrush shrubs to conceal themselves and for shade. An elk's diet consists primarily of grass (thus they are referred to as grazing animals), but they also will consume seedlings and twigs, berries, mushrooms, cattails, and wildflowers. Elk eat almost constantly during the summer, building up fat stores in preparation for winter.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Logo

When the first elk arrived on ALE, no one thought they would stay. Conventional wisdom was that the treeless steppe was too hot, too dry, and had too little vegetation to shade or conceal them. Scientists thought the elk would leave with the onset of summer, but they stayed and prospered. At first, elk restricted their movements to ALE. The only evidence of their presence was their tracks around watering places like Rattlesnake Springs and the sagebrush torn up by bulls as they rubbed velvet from their antlers in the fall. Gradually, small groups were sighted near the mouth of Snively Canyon. The original handful of elk grew at a rate of 28 percent per year, one of the highest rates ever observed for elk. When the herd size reached about 100 animals, some began to wander outside ALE boundaries. Now, some animals are killed each year by hunters on surrounding lands.

Graphic: Notes... "It is not clear whether elk ever have been common in the Columbia Basin. Early-day explorers, traders, and trappers left little in the way of written records to indicate an abundance of any large game animals, but archaeological excavations from prehistoric Indian camp sites have revealed the presence of elk bones, hide, and teeth, indicating the animals were eaten by native peoples. Researchers believe that big game such as deer and elk contributed only a small portion to the diets of Native Americans in the Mid-Columbia. They did use bowstrings made of elk sinew that had been extracted and treated. They don't know, though, whether the elk were hunted locally, brought back by hunting parties, or obtained through trade with other tribes.

Graphic: Suggested Activities

1. Take a field trip to see elk tracks.
You may not actually see an elk, but there are stories to be read in their tracks and the tracks of other animals. To better understand how to identify and read these tracks, take a field trip to a wild area. You may find evidence of elk, deer, or other creatures left behind in snow, dust, or soft mud near a stream. Hoofed animals like elk leave distinctive tracks that are fairly easy to identify. To compare tracks, make a plaster cast of an animal track. Finding tracks is easiest during spring in moist earth along streams and springs.

Here's how (from A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist, 1988. Gerald Durrell, Knopf, New York):
You will need plaster of Paris, a strip of cardboard, and a paper clip. Press the cardboard into the ground around the print and secure it with the clip. Mix the plaster and water to a cream and pour it slowly into the print. After about half an hour dig up the cast, cardboard, and surrounding earth and take it home in a plastic bag. Wash it off using an old toothbrush, then let it dry. Using books on tracks, identify the owner and label the print. (If you are not able to find tracks outdoors you can purchase plastic reproductions. Order plastic tracks from the Carolina Science and Math Catalog, 1-800-334-5551. Place 3-4 inches of moist sand or soil in a box or plastic tub. Place the track on the sand or soil and push down gently to make a clear imprint.)

Questions a scientist might ask: Compare your print cast with the prints of other animals. How can you tell if it's an elk or deer (and not a Hereford calf, gopher, or mouse)? If you observe tracks outside, what else do you notice? Are there more then one set of tracks? Are the tracks different sizes? Can you tell in which direction the animal was traveling? How deep are the tracks? How far apart are the tracks of the same animal? The spacing between steps can give you information on how large the animal is, because bigger animals often take bigger steps or strides. Combine this information with other clues to the animal's size. A long stride also might mean the animal was running. (Adapted from Dinosaurs, 1987. Dennis Schatz, Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington.)

2. During winter months, drive to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Oak Creek Wildlife Area to view elk.
The Wildlife Area is located near Naches on Highway 12. For directions to the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, call (509)653-2390. For information on feeding elk, contact Bill Weiler, (509)457-9310. Elk on ALE can often be seen in late fall and winter from Highway 240.

Graphic: Other Resources

  1. Animal Tracker (Nature Notebook), Jim Arnosky, 1997. Random House, New York.
  2. Deer and Elk, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, 1994. Clairon Books, New York.
  3. Deer, Moose, Elk, and Caribou (Kids Can Press Wildlife Series), Deborah Hodge, 1998. Kids Can Press.
  4. Familiar Animal Tracks (The Audubon Society Pocket Guide), John Farrand, 1999. Knopf, New York.
  5. Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS), University of California, Berkeley, California, Animal Defenses (Preschool -K), School Yard Ecology ( 3-6), Animals in Action (5-9).
  6. I Am of This Land: Wildlife of the Hanford Site, Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow, 1997. Western Printing, Clarkston, Washington.
  7. Nearer Nature, Jim Arnosky, 1996. Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, New York.
  8. A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist, 1988. Gerald Durrell, Knopf, New York.
  9. The Peterson Field Guide Series: A Field Guide to the Mammals, Burt, W.H., R.P. Grossenheider, 1976. Peterson, R.A. (Ed.). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
  10. Shrub-Steppe Seasons: A Natural History of Mid-Columbia Basin, Lee E. Rogers, 1995. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington. Weeds of the West, Tom Whitson, Editor, 1996, Pioneer of Jackson Hole, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Graphic: Websites...

  1. -
  2. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation All About Elk -
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park: Wildlife Elk -

Graphic: Acknowledgments

Initial development and printing was funded by the Partnership for Arid Land Stewardship. Written by: Denice Carrothers, Larry Cadwell, and Lee Rogers. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design. First Printing: April 1999.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Ecology Series


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