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Scientific classification
Binomial name
Cervus elaphus
Cervus elaphus canadensis - Eastern Elk, extinct
Cervus elaphus roosevelti - Roosevelt Elk
Cervus elaphus nannodes - Tule Elk
Cervus elaphus nelsoni - Rocky Mountain Elk
Cervus elaphus merriami - Merriam Elk, extinct
Cervus elaphus manitobensis - Manitoban Elk

Wapiti (Cervus elaphus) are the second largest deer (cervid) in the world, second only to the Moose. They are known as 'Elk' in North America. Wapiti is the Shawnee name for this animal. Wapiti are related to European red deer.

One of the largest North American game animals, richly-flavored and low in cholesterol, they live in open forest and near forest edges in similar environments as deer. In mountain regions, they are known for living in rugged high elevations during the summer, and in winter they gather in lower areas with more shelter. Wapiti weigh 230 to 450 kg and stand 0.75-1.5 m high at the shoulder. Their antlers usually measure 1 -1.5 m across tip to tip. Males often weigh twice as much as females. Wapiti are known for their loud bugling during the rut.

Formerly widespread through Siberia and North America, in taiga, temperate forests and grassland, wapiti (elk) are found throughout North America, especially in Rocky Mountain region. Western wapiti have been brought to several states east of the Mississippi River including the Appalachian area where the now extinct subspecies Eastern Elk Cervus elaphus canadensis once lived.

The current elk population is estimated to be about one-tenth of the historic level. The population along with most other North American game animals reached a low point around 1900. However populations have rebounded with controls on hunting. There were estimated to be 782,500 elk in North America in 1989. About 72,000 then lived in Canada. Some 20,000 are in elk ranches where elk are raised for meat, antlers or for hunting. Most elk live in the west, especially the Rocky Mountain region. Only 3,500 elk live in the wild in the US east of Mississippi and that population is spread over 7 states. The population is similarly small in eastern Canada.

Elk, like other cervids, are subject to chronic wasting disease, which may be similar to Mad cow disease. The primary predators of adult elk are mountain lions, wolves, and grizzlies. Coyotes and black bears sometimes prey on cubs.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made a gift of wapiti to New Zealand, where they were released into the southwestern part of the South Island.

Related Species

North American elk, like moose and caribou, are an Old World deer species that originated in Eurasia and spread to North America, crossing the Bering Land Bridge during the ice age. North American elk were once considered a separate species, and the Eurasian red deer another species. Scientists now know that elk are a subspecies of the Eurasian red deer. The Red Deer family includes about 27 subspecies, including some on the endangered species list: the Bactrian deer (C. e. bactrianus), Barbary deer (C. e. barbarus), Corsican red deer (C. e. corsicanus), Asiatic hangul or Kashmir deer (C. e. hanglu), Izubr stag or Isyubra deer/Manchurian red deer (C. e. xanthopygos), McNeill's red deer or Szechuan red deer (C. e. macneilli), Shou (C. e. affims) and Yarkand deer (C. e. yarkandanseis ). Some of the other subspecies are the Alshansk or Ala-Shan red deer (C. e. alshanicus), Altai red deer (C. e. asiaticus or sibiricus), Balkan red deer (C. e. hippelaphus), Corsican red deer (C. e, corsicanus), ( Kansu red deer (C. e. kansuensis), Maral (C. e. sibiricus), Norwegian red deer (C. .e. atlanticus), Scottsih red deer (C. e. scoticus), Shingielt red deer (C. e. wachei), Spanish red deer (C. e. hispanicus), Swedish red deer (C. e. elaphus), Tien-Shan red deer (C. e songaricus) and Wallich's deer (C. e. Wallichii). There were originally six subspecies of elk in North America with an estimated population of about 10 million; the Rocky Mountain or Yellowstone elk (C. e. nelsoni), Manitoba elk (C. e. manatobensis), Olympic or Roosevelt elk (C. e. roosevelti) and the Tule elk (C. e. nannodes) still survive. The Eastern elk (C. e. canadensis) and the Merriam's elk (C. e. merriami) are considered extinct.


Deer first appear in fossil records around 13 million years ago in Eurasia. However, elk do not appear in the North American fossil records until about 120,000 years ago, when they crossed the Bering land bridge. Once on the North American continent they moved south and east. Around 70,000 years ago they were isolated into four different populations. One of these was found in the Alaska/Yukon region, one in the Washington/Oregon coastal region, another in western California, and the largest population east of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains, extending to the Appalachian Mountains and into southern Canada and northern Mexico.

With the arrival of the Europeans and the migration of man toward the west came the need for food and the hunting of what seemed like unlimited game, mainly buffalo and elk. Hunting for meat progressed into sport hunting and the wanton slaughter and extinction of the Eastern Elk, and the near extinction of the Rocky Mountain Elk. Merriam’s Elk eventually succumbed to extinction after hunting brought the numbers below viable breeding populations. In the early 1900's concerned sportsmen foresaw the eventual demise of many game animals and sought, and implemented, hunting seasons and limits, which saved many species which would have otherwise perished.

Varietes of Elk

Of the six North American subspecies of wapiti, two are extinct, through hunting and habitat loss, the Eastern Elk, through human settlement, and the southwestern wapiti (Merriam's Elk) through hunting and increased desertification. A population of Merriam's Elk existed in the Guadeloupe Moutains of Texas (present herds of elk in the mountains of Texas were released in 1928 from North Dakota. Of the Eastern 'Elk' the last wapiti in Eastern Tennessee was shot in 1849. The last free wapiti in Iowa were recorded in 1871.

The Washington/Oregon population later evolved into two different subspecies, the Olympic elk of the southwestern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and northwestern Californa; and the Tule Elk of central California. As the Wisconsin Glacial age ended around 10,000 years ago, a population of elk was isolated from the large eastern population and became the now extinct Merriam’s Elk of Mexico and the southwestern United States. As the Great Plains evolved the remainder of the eastern populations became separated again. One of these populations may have evolved with the Great Plains to become the Manitoba Elk. At the same time the eastern population was separating into two more groups, those of the eastern deciduous forests became the now extinct Eastern Elk; those of the western coniferous forests became the Rocky Mountain Elk. These six subspecies inhabited most of North America when the Europeans first arrived.

Rocky Mountain Elk

Contrary to popular belief the Rocky Mountain Elk was not an animal of the plains that retreated to the mountains because of the encroachment of man. Elk always lived in the Rocky Mountains. Rocky Mountain elk currently inhabit the Rocky Mountains from central British Columbia and Alberta through Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, northeastern Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, the western portions of North and South Dakota. There are scattered populations of transplanted animals in many other states; western Nebraska, northeast Minnesota and northern Michigan among them. The current North American elk population is about 3/4 million animals.

Rocky Mountain elk bulls weigh 700-800 pounds and cows 450-550 pounds. Bulls may stand five feet at the shoulder, with legs three feet long and body lengths of eight feet. Their coloration is generally tan with dark brown legs, neck, head and belly, with a buff colored rump. Bulls may be lighter colored than cows, appearing silver at times. White and silver colored animals to appear in the wild. Antlers of mature bulls usually have six or more points per side with main beam lengths of 60 inches, inside spreads may reach 48 inches.

Roosevelt Elk

Roosevelt Elk inhabit the northern portion of California and the western portions of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Transplants have been made to Afognak Island in Alaska. Estimates of the total population range from 20,000 to 30,000. Roosevelt Elk are larger and darker than Rocky Mountain Elk. Bulls may weigh in excess of 1000 pounds. Their racks often have several points forming a crown or basket at the normal fourth tine, and the beams may be slightly flattened or palmated.

Manitoba Elk

Manitoba Elk inhabit central Manitoba, east central Saskatchewan and the badlands of North Dakota. Many of the Canadian elk are found in and near Riding Mountain and Prince Albert National Parks, and Duck Mountain Provincial Park. The coat of the Manitoba Elk is darker than the Rocky Mountain Elk. It is generally not as tall, but is stockier than the Rocky Mountain Elk with similar body weights. Populations are stable at about 10,000 animals.

Tule Elk

Tule Elk inhabit a limited area of mainly private land in Button Willow and Kern counties of central California. They are smaller than other subspecies, with bulls averaging 500 pounds. The current population is about 2000 animals. Hunting has been reopened in recent years, however there are a very limited number or permits (40?) available for both resident and nonresident hunters. Hunt costs are around $13,000 through the services of an outfitter. The world record non-typical scores 340.

According to well respected Cervidae researcher Dr. Valerius Geist the difference in these subspecies is a result of their environment; the genetic difference being very minute. Because of this he says they will all look alike after a few generations, if they are kept in captivity under similar conditions. He maintains that while crossbreeding does produce hybrid vigor, in which the offspring are larger than either parent, hybrid vigor only lasts for a few generations.

External References