Elk are the most commonly observed animal in Yellowstone.

Boasting a summer elk population over 30,000 and a winter population ranging between 15,000 and 22,000, Yellowstone is home to more elk than any other place in the world. Scientifically known as Cervus elaphus and recognized in the Shawnee language as “Wapiti,” elk have foraged upon Yellowstone’s shrubs, plentiful grass, pine needles, and aspen bark for over 1,000 years. Bulls (adult males) average 700 to 900 pounds, while cows (adult females) typically weigh 500 pounds.

As with other park species, the arrival of autumn signals the beginning of annual rut (mating) season. Bull elk, which begin growing antlers as yearlings, use their racks to assert dominance over other elk in the herd and garner a harem of over twenty cows during the September to mid-October mating season. Those bulls with the biggest antlers and loudest bugle frequently have the most success with the ladies, and park visitors arriving in the fall are privy to the unique, high-pitched sound of the elk’s melodic mating cry. By November, mating season has ended, and the elk move to Yellowstone’s lower, northern elevations where winters are marked with warmer temperatures and less snowfall than other park regions. By late May and early June, the elk disperse themselves throughout the park for summer season, and the cows give birth to the year’s offspring. Most newborn elk calves weigh twenty-five to forty pounds at birth and begin walking within one hour of their arrival.

Marked with a distinct light beige rump, elk feature dark, heavy manes with reddish-brown coats. Racks weighing up to thirty pounds and featuring six to eight points on each side distinguish the stately bulls from their female counterparts. Yellowstone’s elk travel in seven to eight different herds and are one of the most visible park animals. Despite their apparent ease in the public eye, visitors are reminded to provide elk with plenty of space. Take pictures from a distance, and never come between a cow and its calf.

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