A herd of elk stand together, pawing through knee-deep snow to uncover the hay underneath. Deep snow may be a problem for many grazers, such as deer and turkeys, but for the tall, powerful elk, the snow isn't much of an obstacle. However, if it rains, an icy crust on the snow can present a problem for many ground-feeding animals.
The magnificent elk stand strong and proud against their surroundings, yet there is one thing that separates them from their wild ancestors - a fence. These elk are a captive herd which is held inside 100 acres surrounded by a 9-foot fence. In the past 25 years or so, elk farms have popped up everywhere in Wisconsin. They offer people the chance to see these beautiful animals close up. For me, it means a chance to study them with notebook and sketchpad.
I can't help thinking of what it must have been like to see wild elk on this land before the white man settled here. Elk shared the prairie landscape of southern Wisconsin with herds of buffalo, prairie chickens, wolves and mountain lions. All of these wild animals and many others disappeared with the loss of diverse prairies. I know the prairies of old are gone forever, but seeing the elk stirs the dreamer in me, and helps me better understand the way it was.
To the Shawnee Indians, the elk was known as Wapiti. The Shawnee honored the spirit of Wapiti because it provided them with food and clothing, helping their people survive the long, cold winters.
A full grown elk is an impressive sight, standing over five feet at the shoulders and weighing 700 to 1000 pounds. I am always reminded of the time I surprised a large bull elk in southern Colorado some 25 years ago. I was standing waist deep in rabbit brush and sage when only ten feet away, the biggest bull elk I have ever seen stood right up in front of me. Talk about a big impression! It made the hair stand up on the back of my next. He froze and looked right at me; of course, I couldn't move from fright. His massive black chest and giant antlers had truly captured my attention. Suddenly, he flared his huge nostrils, gave a loud grunt, and burst off in the opposite direction.
As it turned out, this old bull knew about man, and my scent gave him more fear of me than I had of him. I found out later that elk hunting season had opened. The wise old bull has learned that most hunters seek elk in their mountainous habitat, so he hides by day in the semi-open bottom lands along the Rio Grande River. To this day, I can't see an elk without remembering that big bull running away before disappearing in the tall willows along the river a mile away.
In the fall, I enjoy watching the elk, because it is rutting season, and courting time. The bulls challenge each other for the right to get acquainted with the cows. Their territory calls can be heard for a mile or more through these otherwise quiet valleys. Their loud bugle signals a challenge to the other males to do battle. With swollen necks and flared nostrils, the bulls grunt as they face off; their huge antlers clatter as they charge each other.The fight continues until one of the big boys tires out and gives up. Usually, this happens before much damage is done, but sometimes there are a few wounds, and a bull may even - though rarely - get his neck broken. To say the least, a bull elk is not a guy to mess around with.
Besides man, the wild elk has some natural predators. The elk is the second largest member of the deer family - smaller only than his cousin, the moose - yet there are a few brave animals who will attack an elk: the cougar (mountain lion), wolf, and bear. However, a mature elk with a full set of sharp antlers is capable of warding off any attacker, even a hungry bear. It's always the very young, sick, or very old animals that are at most risk from natural predators.
An hour after calves are born in the spring, they can walk on their long, wobbly legs. A few hours later, they can run with the herd. Calves who survive the first season may live 15 years or more.
Originally, elk could be found over most of North America, as was true of the bison. Though wild elk are now found only in the Rocky Mountain regions of the West, there could be an elk farm not far from where you live. You might consider paying them a visit, to get a close look at one of nature's most regal animals, the American elk.
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