As deep snow piles up along the Continental Divide, herds of Rocky Mountain elk leave their alpine sanctuaries to forage in sheltered valleys and on wind-swept slopes from Montana to New Mexico.
The fall migration is an annual ritual for many of the 900,000 elk that roam the Western mountain ranges, and a natural spectacle for wildlife watchers who gather to see large congregations of the majestic animals.
One of the longest elk migrations in the nation takes place when a herd leaves Yellowstone National Park and travels to Carter Mountain, west of Meeteetse, Wyo.
“They come out of the real high alpine country in Yellowstone and migrate 60 miles to the end of this bald mountain,” says Blake Henning, 46, a land conservation specialist for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) in Missoula, Mont. “The wind keeps the snow off the mountain so they can get to the grass.”
A century ago, the nation’s elk herds were in severe decline, having been reduced by unrestricted hunting and loss of habitat. Fortunately, elk have made a remarkable comeback, and herds once again wander the Appalachian Mountains where the animals were hunted to extinction in the 1860s.
The return of the elk is one of the greatest wildlife recovery stories in American history thanks to sportsmen, conservationists, and land management and wildlife officials.
“Hunters have been and continue to be the true conservationists,” says M. David Allen, 60, RMEF president. “They’ve been the ones who bring back wildlife from the brink.”
Elk have roamed North America for tens of thousands of years. An estimated 10 million of the animals inhabited the continent before the arrival of Europeans. By 1900, the great prairie herds were gone, and fewer than 100,000 elk were confined to a few remote or protected Western lands.
Preservation began in the late 1800s with establishment of Yellowstone and the hiring of wardens to enforce state game laws. In 1905, Wyoming established its first game preserve for elk, and in 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt created Mount Olympus National Monument (now Olympic National Park) in Washington as an elk reserve. Three years later the National Elk Refuge was established to provide habitat for herds that winter north of Jackson, Wyo.
During the next three decades, several thousand elk were transplanted from northwestern Wyoming, increasing populations across the West and restoring small herds in a few states east of the Mississippi River.
Today, more than 1 million elk inhabit the United States, a tenfold increase since restoration began. Colorado has the largest herd, numbering 283,000 animals, followed by Montana with 150,000; Oregon, 125,000; Wyoming, 120,000; and Idaho, 103,000. Since reintroduction in 1997, Kentucky’s elk herd has grown to 10,000.
Elk received a big boost in 1984 with formation of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The 180,000-member organization got its start when Dan Bull, an avid elk hunter and pastor of Troy (Mont.) Christian Fellowship, and three members of his congregation—brothers Bob and Bill Munson and Charlie Decker—decided that preserving land for wildlife was the best way to protect elk.
Since its inception, the foundation has conserved or enhanced more than 6 million acres and helped to maintain or restore elk herds in 28 states.
“Let’s face it: Habitat and open spaces are shrinking across the country,” says Bob Munson, 68, who now lives in Seattle, Wash. “The biggest threat still is development and encroachment on winter range and habitat.”
King of deer
Elk are among the largest free-ranging game animals in North America. Only bear, bison and moose are larger.
Roosevelt elk, a subspecies named after Theodore Roosevelt that lives in Pacific Northwest rainforests, can weigh more than 1,000 pounds, though adult elk typically average 500 to 700 pounds.
“They are a royal symbol of the deer family,” says Decker, 69, of Libby, Mont. “In my mind, they are the kings of the deer family. They’re not as large as a moose, but they’re a whole lot prettier.”
With their distinctive buff-colored rumps and stately gait, elk are magnificent creatures prized by hunters for their large antlers and lean meat. An elk’s two top canine teeth are ivory and believed to be remnants of its ancestors’ saber-like tusks.
The grand antlers grown by mature bulls are used to spar and secure female harems. During the fall mating season, bulls “bugle”—make a shrill whistling call—to attract cows and declare their dominance.
“If you get a bull elk bugling close to you when they’re in the heat of the rut, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your head,” says Decker, who’s hunted elk since age 12. “They’re large, impressive and intimidating animals.”
Today, thanks to preservation and restoration efforts, elk bugle each fall in forests, parks, refuges and preserves from Alaska to North Carolina.
Tule Elk State Natural Reserve near Tupman, Calif., is home to the smallest subspecies of elk in North America. Found only in California, tule elk—named for a group of marshland plants—were saved from extinction beginning in 1874 by cattleman Henry Miller.
In Kentucky, Saddle Up Elk Tours offers horseback rides to view elk that inhabit reclaimed coalmine land near Hazard. “We’ve had people from 15 to 20 different states come see these elk,” says owner and guide Bernice Amburgey, 50. “They don’t realize how big these animals are, that their antlers are so huge and the kind of sound that comes out of them.”
During the last two years, 69 elk from Kentucky were relocated to southeastern Missouri, establishing the first wild herd in the Show-Me State for 150 years. Twenty elk from Kentucky were released this spring in southwestern Virginia, joining animals that naturally migrated across the border.
People also can observe and learn about elk at the Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette, Pa. Open since 2010, the center offers horse-drawn wagon rides on weekends to see a herd descended from animals transported from Yellowstone to the Elk National Forest in 1913.