Elk were at one time the most widely distributed member of the deer family in North America – found everywhere except the Great Basin desert and the Southern coastal plains. Their population was estimated to total 10 million before European man arrived. Elk withstood the impacts of the western settlement better than the buffalo because they inhabited rougher terrain. The great reduction in elk numbers is attributable to market hunting and agriculture. The population low of 90,000 occurred in 1922, of these, 40,000 were in Yellowstone Park. The Park's herds became a reservoir for stocking breeding elk. Between 1912 and 1967 more than 13,500 elk were transplanted from the Park. In February 1913, 83 elk were released in Cabin Draw near Chevelon Creek. From these transplants, the Arizona elk population has grown to nearly 35,000 animals.
Summer elk range is typically within a ½ mile of water. Winter range is often the limiting factor for elk herds as only about 10 percent of their total habitat is winter range. Elk prefer the summer range, moving to high elevations early and staying until absolutely forced down by snow depth. Summer range varies from 7,000 feet in the mixed conifers to 10,000+ in the spruce fir-sub-alpine belt. Winter range varies from 5,500 to 6,500 feet in Arizona, the pinyon-juniper zone.
Elk have distinct summer and winter coats, which they shed in late summer and spring, respectively. In winter the head, belly, neck and legs are dark brown; the sides and back are grayish brown; and the rump patch is yellowish bordered by a dark brownish stripe. While the female is usually somewhat lighter, both sexes have heavy dark manes. In summer, the coat becomes a deep reddish brown. There is little to no undercoat, giving the animals a sleek, muscular appearance.
Calves are born from late May to early June after an 8 to 8 ½ month gestation. Twins are extremely rare. Calves average nearly 30 lbs. with males averaging 4 lbs. more than females. The calf is dark russet colored with white spots on the back and sides.
As with many game species in Arizona, elk hunting has had its ups and downs. With native elk having been extirpated, the closed season imposed by the territorial legislature in 1893 was too little too late. The releases of Yellowstone elk between 1913 and 1929 were successful, however, and in 1935 the population was deemed sufficient to support a limited, 266-permit bull hunt. One hundred and forty-five elk were harvested, and hunts were continued every year through 1943.
Because of World War II, no season was conducted in 1944 or 1945, but a limited hunt, which included the issuance of the first cow elk permits, was again authorized in 1946. Elk hunting opportunities expanded almost annually as biologists and ranchers feared that Arizona's elk population might now "rise out of control." These concerns culminated in 1953 when 6,288 permits were issued and 1,558 elk were taken-more than 1,000 of which were cows. Because of concerns about the "slaughter," elk permits were greatly curtailed in 1954 and remained below 5,000 until 1965, when more than 6,000 permits were again authorized. By 1967, elk permit numbers were exceeding 7,000, and the annual harvest exceeded 1,500 elk. Once again, elk permits were gradually lowered; although new hunts, including archery hunts, were being initiated.
By the mid-1980s, elk and elk permit numbers were again headed upward. This trend culminated in 1994, when nearly 11,000 elk were harvested-a number unimaginable just 20 years earlier. Since then, elk numbers and harvests have remained at a high level. This situation is expected to continue as wildlife managers and land managers continue to be concerned about habitat quality and elk-livestock competition.
The cow will separate from the herd and seek out dense cover for a nursery. The female will drive off last year's calf only weeks before parturition. Within hours, the newborn calf can move and is led from the birthing spot to a safer place. After a week, the female will band with other females and after two to three weeks the calves, now able to run, will join the group creating herds numbering in the hundreds. By September, the calves have shed their juvenile spotted coats. The life span of elk is 14 to 16 years for males and 15 to 17 for females, though in 1937 a tagged elk in Arizona was 25 when it was harvested.
Antler development is a function of age. The antler cast occurs in January to March for adult bulls and from March through May for sub-adults. New growth occurs shortly after the cast. The growing period ranges from 90 days for yearlings to 150 days for adult bulls. Therefore it's possible to see yearlings with old spikes at the same time as bulls with a foot of velvet.
By early August, antler growth is complete. The velvet dries up and the antlers harden. The velvet is stripped off in a matter of hours and the elk polishes its antlers against trees. By early September, the bull is ready for the rut. Bugling and harem formation occurs. Harems may number up to 30, depending on the vigor of the bull, but usually average 15 to 20.
A large bull can weigh up to 1,200 lbs. but usually will range from 600 to 800 lbs. Mature cows will range from 450 to 600 lbs. Elk evolved as distance runners. Elk can approach 40 mph for short periods and nearly 30 mph for longer periods. They are strong swimmers, even calves can swim over a mile. Elk can jump vertically 8 to 10 feet.
Breeding Period: September-October
Young Appear: June
Average Number of Young: 1
Distribution: 6K-10K ft, northern Arizona Habitat: Fir-aspen and pine-juniper forests
Food Preference: Weeds, grasses, sedges, shrubs, willow and trees in season
Range: 20-30 sq. miles
Live Weight: M-900lbs.; F-500lbs.
Predators: Mountain lion and coyote