December 10, 2015: Waapiti

This month’s special project concerns elk, and most of the photos were taken at the National Bison Range north of Missoula. I am thankful that there are places like the Bison Range where hunting is prohibited and the populations of elk and other animals are protected, although even there the sounds of gunfire during hunting season seem to close in from all sides.

North American elk (Cervus canadensis) were known as waapiti to the Native Americans which means “white rump”—and let us take this opportunity to be grateful for the fact that we are not similarly named for the characteristics of our backsides. Elk are the fourth largest land mammals in North America after bison, grizzly bears, and moose, with adult bulls weighing up to 1,300 pounds (Wikipedia, 2015). This is more than twice as heavy as a full-grown male black bear (Beers, 2015). A six-month old elk calf weighs as much as a full-grown white-tailed deer. The males’ antlers can grow nearly an inch a day during the spring and summer months and end up tipping the scales at between 40 and 70 pounds during rutting season (Love & Wald, 2011; Wikipedia, 2015). Despite their bulk, elk can run up to 45 miles per hour (Love & Wald, 2011).

The sounds of bull elk bugling in the fall are haunting. Many mornings at the National Bison Range I heard the reverberations of their calls while I was still miles away from Mission Creek, their favorite rutting ground. Out away from the burgeoning cities and highways as the fog rolls down the foothills of the Mission Mountains toward the creek, the bizarre bellows of these regal creatures cuts through the morning calm. Complex social dances are performed by the individual males and groups of females as the latter are herded to and fro by the males. The groups of females are coerced and pushed by their bull to keep them safe from predators but also to keep them separated from other bulls with larcenous and amorous intentions. Some of the males seem to get a bit too fixated on proving their mettle against strong challengers allowing smaller, younger males sneak in and peel off a part of the harem.

When European settlers arrived in North America there were approximately 10 million elk from six subspecies on the continent and elk were the most widespread of all hoofed animals (Bauer & Bauer, 1996). Currently there are only about one million elk from four subspecies in North America (Wikipedia, 2015). Given that every year in the United States nearly one million hunters spend an average of eight days hunting elk (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011), we should be grateful for the fact that they are not particularly good at killing them. Unfortunately, hunters’ failure to kill elk requires a scapegoat (no pun intended), and licenses for the killing (through both hunting and trapping) of wolves, mountain lions, and bears have increased in order to ensure that there are also enough elk for human hunters to kill. Of course, before settlement by Europeans when there were many times more mountain lions, bears, and wolves in North America there were also ten times as many elk, but these non-human predators are nonetheless blamed for the lack of success of elk hunters (Kramer, 2013).

Pressure from elk hunters and elk hunting guides as well as a loss of revenue to departments of fish and game in the western states (Kramer, 2013) have also ginned up calls for reducing the populations of predators. Fortunately, new research is indicating that wolf depredation is not as damaging to elk populations as formerly thought, and that, shockingly, habitat loss through commercial and agricultural development may be more problematic (Middleton et al., 2013; Steele, 2014). Hazen (2012) concluded that “wolves are not having a significant effect on elk harvest in Montana” (p. 78).  In addition, thinning a herd of its weakest members as predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and bears do is better for herd health than taking the strongest and biggest as human hunters do (Sibley, 2005).  Let’s hope that in the future wildlife photographers shoot more elk than hunters.


Bauer, E. A., & Bauer, P. (1996). Elk: Behavior, ecology, conservation. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press.

Beers, B. (2015). North American animals: How big are they? Retrieved from

Hazen, S. R. (2012). The impact of wolves on hunting in Montana. Master’s thesis (Montana State University). Retrieved from

Kramer, B. (2013). Elk hunters face tougher test with wolves in woods. Retrieved from

Love, D., & Wald, C. (2011). The wild life of elk. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company.

Sibley, G. (2005). Never cry 293F. In G. Wockner, G. McNamee, S. Campbell, & M. Udall (Eds.), Comeback wolves: Western writers welcome the wolf home (pp. 119-124). Boulder, CO: Johnson Books.

Steele, S. (2014). Wolves are not hurting deer & elk populations. Retrieved from

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2011). 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Retrieved from
Wikipedia. (2015). Elk. Retrieved from
Back to Top