Guide to the Wapiti Elk

Getting to know our most regal ungulate, the wapiti elk, including history, habits and habitat of this type of elk.

| September/October 1986

Getting to know our most regal ungulate, the wapiti elk.   

Guide to the Wapiti Elk

From my mountaintop cabin's door, it's maybe 1,000 yards across a little river valley to the patchwork of verdant meadows and chalk white aspen groves that make up Old Rube's summertime stamping grounds. Where he disappears to during winter I can only guess. Perhaps the wapiti elk wanders the 15 miles and 1,500 vertical feet down out of the high country to the easier pickings along the sheltered bottoms of the river, as do so many others of his kind. Or maybe Old Rube simply holes up somewhere back in the dark pine and fir forests that gird his summertime meadows and groves.

I call the old bull elk Rube because of the sleek rubescence of his summertime coat. There are other elk to spy on (through 7X binoculars) as they feed at the cool edges of day in those meadows over yonder-sometimes as many as a dozen cows, calves, and spike bulls. But the big red harem master is far and away the most striking; against the distance-darkened green of the meadows, Old Rube shines under the morning sun like a rich red jewel in an Ethiope's ear.

This big bull wapiti elk — just one of many hereabouts — is a prime example of why the elkor wapiti (from an Algonquian word meaning "white rump") — has been called "the monarch of the West." The moose is larger, the grizzly bear more powerful, the cougar more mysterious, and the whitetail more graceful. But the bull wapiti, with his proud posture, trumpeted call to arms, and rich, tricolored pelage, is certainly the most regal of North America's great wild creatures. And his crowning glory is a magnificent rack of antlers.

In fact, among elk aficionados, a bull's degree of royalty is determined by the splendor of his crown: A male carrying six tines on each main antler beam is a royal, seven points rate imperial status, while those rare few potentates who wear eight or more tines per beam are honored as monarchs. Exactly where on that scale Old Rube falls I really can't say . . . the distance is too great and my binoculars too small to allow for an accurate point count. But I've seen enough bull elk, and enough of Old Rube, to be certain that he's royalty. Possibly imperial.

Elk evolved as a distinct species within the deer family (Cervidae) in Asia, then spread westward to Europe as the red deer (stag) and eastward to North America via the Bering-Chukchi platform over the tens of thousands of years it was exposed by lowered sea levels during the Illinoian and Wisconsin glacial stages — beginning possibly as long ago as 120,000 years. While the North American wapiti was long classified as Cervus canadensis, a species distinct from the smaller and more deep-voiced European red deer, most wildlife taxonomists now lump the two together as C. elaphus.

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