WAPITI OR ELK
Cervus canadensis Erxleben 1777
Order Artiodactyla : Family Cervidae
DESCRIPTION. Large, deer-like; males with large, usually six-pointed antlers that are shed annually; hair on neck long and shaggy; upperparts buffy fawn, the head, neck, legs, and belly dull rusty brown to blackish; large rump patch creamy buff to whitish; metatarsal gland oval, about 75 mm long, the center white; tail a mere rudiment. Dental formula: I 0/3, C 1/1, Pm 3/3, M 3/3 × 2 = 34. Averages for external measurements: of males, total length, about 2 m; tail, 160 mm; hind foot, 670 mm. Weight, up to 300 kg, averaging about 275 kg. Females are smaller and usually without antlers.
DISTRIBUTION. Native to the Guadalupe Mountains (Culberson County) but extirpated by 1900. Reintroduced to the Guadalupe Mountains in 1928 and later to other mountains of the Trans-Pecos. Presently, free-ranging elk exist in Texas in five small herds in the Guadalupe Mountains, Glass Mountains (Brewster County), Wylie Mountains (Culberson County), Davis Mountains (Jeff Davis County), and Eagle Mountains (Hudspeth County); recently, free-ranging elk have been observed in the Texas Panhandle (Dallam County). The total population of free-ranging elk in the Trans-Pecos was estimated in 1995 at 330 (in 2014 closer to 3,500) individuals. Others are kept in deer-proof pastures on scattered ranches across the state.
SUBSPECIES. The native subspecies was C. c. merriami (presumably now extinct), and the reintroduced animals were from South Dakota (C. c. canadensis). However, at this time it is unclear whether the Trans-Pecos elk are a result of an expansion of the Guadalupe herd (subspecies canadensis) or if they represent natural immigrants from the Rocky Mountain herd in New Mexico (subspecies nelsoni). The elk herd from the Dalhart area could be either canadensis or nelsoni; RDB is now using molecular genetics to address this conundrum.
HABITS. Elk formerly inhabited the plains region of the western United States in winter and open, forested areas in summer. They migrated from one to the other seasonally. Now they are forced by land-use practices into yearlong use of the mountainous regions. Lack of adequate winter range is one of the big obstacles to the increase or even maintenance of elk on much of their former range.
Elk are gregarious at all seasons, but in spring and summer the old bulls usually are solitary or in bachelor herds. Except during the period of rut, the herd invariably is under the charge of a cow, and it is she who leads them to water and to the feeding grounds. When bedded for the night or the noonday siesta, or when feeding, a sentinel is posted (again a cow) to stand guard and give the alarm if danger threatens. On sensing danger, the sentinel or any other cow gives warning by an explosive bark that instantly alerts the entire herd. When elk are traveling or feeding, the rear stragglers are usually immature animals.
The normal gait of elk is a saunter, but they can trot or gallop, depending on the mood of the individual or herd. After being startled, the animals may gallop at top speed for a kilometer or so, then stop and reconnoiter; if the alarm has proven serious, the herd may resume flight at a dogtrot, often in single file, a pace that can be maintained for several hours. In spite of their large size, elk are rather agile and can readily jump over fences and corrals as high as 2 m.
Although their senses of sight and hearing are well developed, it seems that elk depend largely on the sense of smell to detect danger. One can easily stalk them upwind as long as the animals do not scent the stalker. Elk are known to use three kinds of calls: (1) the bark of the cow, usually a danger signal, (2) the bugling of the bull during the period of rut, and (3) the bleating of calves and yearlings.
The antlers usually are shed between 15 February and 15 April, and new growth starts soon after the old scars are healed. Between the time of shedding and the latter part of August or early September, the adult bull grows a new set of antlers weighing as much as 15–20 kg. Walter B. Sheppard of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, found that animals kept in confinement during antler growth consumed seven times the ration customarily eaten during other times of the year. The normal number of points per antler in old males is six, very often five, and rarely as many as nine.
Elk are both grazers and browsers. Palatability studies in northern Idaho revealed that the key forage species on the summer range are willow, maple, broom grass, ryegrass, and elk sedge. Serviceberry, mountain ash, and bitter cherry also were heavily utilized browse species. There is limited information about their food habits in Texas. In the Guadalupe Mountains, they feed on mountain mahogany, agaves, and several species of grasses.
Bugling, which marks the onset of the breeding season, usually starts in the latter part of August, shortly after the velvet has been shed from the antlers. Breeding activities increase until mid-September and end by November. Not all cows come into estrous at the same time. Shortly after bugling starts, the herds break up and bulls collect their harems of 5–15 adult females. Sheppard maintains that the bulls do not actively seek out the cows, but rather the cows gravitate toward the larger, more virile bulls. Usually the younger, unattached bulls remain near a harem, and although the leader tries to keep them at a distance, he finds it difficult to do so. Adult bulls start into the rut excessively fat, but they usually emerge in poor physical condition. This emaciation is due to the fact that for the 6-week rutting season the larger bulls have little time to eat or even sleep because they are constantly on the alert to ward off the younger bulls. Old bulls do not ordinarily stay with the same harems throughout the breeding period but move from one herd to another. It frequently happens that the larger bulls become so exhausted that they retire from the herd for a time to recuperate. Toward the close of the rutting season, the larger bulls desert the cows for good and seek seclusion.
The average gestation period of elk is about 8.5 months (249–262 days). The main calving period extends from about the middle of May to the middle of June; the number of young is almost invariably one. At birth the calf is long legged and reddish brown in color, with interspersed white spots on the back and sides. The rump patch is poorly defined. For the first few days, the calves are rather helpless and, except for the feeding periods, remain hidden beside logs and under bushes. When about 2 weeks old they are able to follow the females; soon after that the mother and her young one rejoin the main herd. At the age of 1 month, elk calves eat grass and other vegetation, and when 2 or 3 months old they graze regularly with the adults. Weaning evidently does not take place until October or even after the rutting season. Sexual maturity in females ordinarily is not reached until the second year. Bulls do not enter actively into the rut until they are about 3 years old.
POPULATION STATUS. Uncommon. This well-known species once ranged over parts of northern and western Texas, but there seem to be no actual specimens to document its modern occurrence there. In any event, the elk was hunted to extinction within the borders of the state before the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1928 Judge J. C. Hunter and his associates imported 44 elk from the Black Hills of South Dakota and released them at McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains. They multiplied rapidly and expanded their range to nearly all parts of the mountains. The estimated population size in 1938 was 400. In 1959, elk were added to the list of game that could be hunted, and the population declined to about 300. The most recent estimates place the Guadalupe Mountain herd size at no more than 40 individuals due to limited water availability. By 1992, presumably migrant individuals had formed herds in the Eagle, Davis, Wylie, and Glass Mountains. These herds now contain perhaps as many as 3,500 individuals.
CONSERVATION STATUS. The IUCN lists the elk as a species of least concern, and it does not appear on the federal or state lists of concerned species. There is a move to have elk listed as a game species so that the populations and harvest limits can be managed more effectively.
REMARKS. At this time it is not clear whether populations in Texas descended from the Guadalupe Mountain herd or if they are progeny of escaped pen-raised individuals. Also, it is not clear if Texas elk are genetically pure or if they contain genes from red deer (Cervus elaphus). Currently, genetic studies are underway by RDB to resolve these issues.
From The Mammals of Texas, Seventh Edition by David J. Schmidly and Robert D. Bradley, copyright © 1994, 2004, 2016. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.