Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni)

cow elk looking at the camera just in front of the edge of the forest

Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni)

Have you ever heard the eerie glissando of a male elk bugle in the fall? Fun fact: elk communicate extensively, and scientists are still trying to understand their complex language. There are tens of thousands of Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) wandering around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE); they are a current and historical food source as well as larger members of the deer family.

Elk are easy to spot in the GYE in winter when they travel to lower elevation to eat grass, forbs, and shrubs. A great way to spot an elk is to look for their white rump. During the summer, they hide away in the mountains to find some tasty tundra vegetation to munch on. Elk mostly eat early in the morning and late in the day so that they can digest their impressive intake of about 20 lbs of plants per day. Elk have dark legs and heads—males have a light brown body and females have a darker brown body. Only male elk have antlers that they grow each year and when their antlers are covered in velvet, they can grow up to an inch every day!

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of elk died of starvation in winters with heavy snow that forced them to migrate to forage. Because settlers built cattle ranches in Jackson Hole, the elk migration path became too limited. Elk were so hungry they would even break into hay storage that was supposed to be for livestock. Because of these events, the National Elk Refuge began in 1912 to give elk 24,700 acres to forage native grasses for the winter.

Written by Celia Karim
PC: Anne Guzzo