North American Elk

James M. Peek
University of Idaho
North American elk or wapiti (Cervus elaphus) represent how a wildlife species can recover even after heavy exploitation of populations and habitats around the turn of the century. This species is highly prized by wildlife enthusiasts and by the hunting public, which has provided the various state wildlife agencies with ample support to restore populations to previously occupied habitats and to manage populations effectively. Additionally, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, founded in 1984, has promoted habitat management, acquisition, and proper hunting ethics among many segments of the hunting public.
Current population size is estimated at 782,500 animals for the entire elk range (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation 1989). Projections of population trends for the national forests and for the entire U.S. elk range are for continued increases through the year 2040 (Flather and Hoekstra 1989).
This species occupies more suitable habitat than at any time in the century, and populations are at all-time highs (Figure). Elk populations in the United States primarily occupy federally managed lands, including national forests, public lands, national parks, and several wildlife refuges. Substantial populations occur on private holdings, including large ranches and reservations owned by Native Americans. Populations have been introduced into Michigan and Pennsylvania and recently have expanded in Nevada and California. In Canada, elk have increased their range into northern British Columbia since 1950 and occupy crown lands in Alberta, British Columbia, and Manitoba. Elk populations in the mountain parks of Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, and Banff are an important part of the fauna, and the populations in Elk Island National Park and Riding Mountain National Park have been extensively investigated. In Alberta and the western United States, an industry centered around ranching elk has proliferated in recent years.

Figure. Distribution of elk in North America as of 1978, based on information provided by provincial and state wildlife agencies (modified from Thomas and Toweill 1982, used with permission, Wildlife Management Institute).
Perhaps the most spectacular improvement in elk populations is in California, where one population that originally consisted of about 600 individuals in the Owens Valley has now grown to over 2,500 Tule elk in 22 different populations (Phillips 1993). Aquiring habitat and reintroducing elk are the major reasons for the increase.
Problems associated with elk management include the reduced life expectancies of males, which in some areas are attributable to hunting. This problem has been aggravated by increased access to formerly inaccessible habitat, allowing more bulls to be hunted. Additionally, elk have moved into more accessible habitats that provide less cover during hunting seasons. In some cases, hunting has increased enough to lower bull elk life expectancies even in areas where access has not increased. Means to address these issues include reductions in season lengths, quotas on bulls either through hunter registration or limited-entry permit hunts, closures of extensive areas to vehicle access during the hunting season, and more integrated management of timber harvest to accommodate the needs of elk for escape cover.
Such restrictions vary in their effectiveness, depending upon numbers and distribution of hunters, other human disturbances, and the amount and kind of forest involved. In open pine forests, for example, restricting access may be less effective than in denser fir forests, making other hunting regulations, such as limited-entry hunts, necessary. Elk occupying open rangelands where conifer cover is poorly distributed are largely subject to limited-entry hunting. Elk are sensitive to human activity even in national parks where they are not hunted and may become partially conditioned to human presence. Recreational, logging, grazing, seismic, and mining activities must be restricted to times and places where animals are least affected.
As elk numbers have increased in farming areas, depredation on cash crops has also increased. Efforts to address this issue include special "depredation" hunts designed to move animals away from problem areas or to reduce populations, planting less palatable crops, fencing hay and valuable crops to prevent access by elk, feeding elk, and hazing to discourage use. An integrated and specially tailored approach is often necessary to address this important problem.
Whether the high densities of elk that occur within Yellowstone National Park are perceived to be a problem depends upon one's viewpoint. Current research on the condition of park plant communities heavily used by wintering elk suggests that factors interact to influence these communities. Grasslands that have been protected for more than 30 years did not exhibit changes in productivity when compared with grazed grasslands (Coughenour 1991). On the other hand, when protected stands are compared with stands open to browsing, it appears that woody plants may have been adversely altered through prolonged heavy grazing (Chadde and Kay 1991). Past actions that affected plants include fire protection, concentrated grazing pressure by bison (Bison bison) in some areas, and altered grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) feeding behavior. Within Yellowstone Park, the prospective restoration of wolf (Canis lupus) populations and changes in grizzly bear populations since the elimination of artifical food sources will undoubtedly affect elk populations that exist primarily within the park.
Natural changes in habitat across the western elk range have largely benefited elk. Efforts to improve range conditions by modifying livestock grazing practices will provide more forage for elk, even if losses in woody plants may reduce the habitat quality for deer. Better livestock management should also mean accommodating elk habitat use by providing ungrazed pastures within grazing allotments and by manipulating livestock grazing so plants retain their palatability to elk. As livestock is managed more effectively across western public lands, forage plants that wildlife use will benefit, thus also benefiting elk.
On the other hand, some traditional high-quality elk winter habitats, which contain seral (see glossary) shrub ranges that developed after large fires earlier this century, are now growing into conifer stands. Some conifers like Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are palatable and highly digestible for elk, and even pole-size stands can provide needed cover during severe winters or hunting seasons. As conifers dominate a larger proportion of the winter ranges and associated spring habitats, however, they shade out other species and habitat quality may deteriorate, eventually hurting elk populations. These long-term changes are not easily dealt with in short-term management efforts.
Nevertheless, the future of elk populations in North America seems secure. Demand for hunting as well as the nonconsumptive values of elk will ensure the success of substantial populations. Elk populations will benefit from improved habitat conditions on arid portions of the range, improved livestock management, more effective integrated management of forested habitats, and continued implementation of fire management policies in the major wilderness areas and national parks.
For further information:
James M. Peek
University of Idaho
Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Moscow, ID 83843

Chadde, S.W., and C.E. Kay. 1991. Tall willow communities on Yellowstone's northern range: a test of the "natural regulation" paradigm. Pages 231-262 in R.B. Keiter and M.S. Boyce, eds. The greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Coughenour, M.B. 1991. Biomass and nitrogen responses to grazing of upland steppe on Yellowstone's northern winter range. Journal of Applied Ecology 28:71-82.

Flather, C.H., and T.W. Hoekstra. 1989. An analysis of the wildlife and fish situation in the United States: 1989-2040. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. RM-178. 147 pp.

Phillips, B. 1993. Good news for tules: Destanella Flat. Bugle 10:21-31.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. 1989. Wapiti across the West. Bugle 6:138-140.

Thomas, J.W., and D.E. Toweill, eds. 1982. Elk of North America. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA. 698 pp.