Alaska Mammals: Elk

lonely caribou in Alakan Nature

Ungulates are mammalswith hooves, or horny coverings over the lower part of their feet or toes.Ungulates are classified or split into two groups, those with horns andthose with antlers. Alaska ungulates include the moose, caribou, elk, Sitka deer, bison, mountain goats, and dall sheep.

Sometimes humans bring wildlife species intoAlaska that once thrived here or introduce toan area a new species that people want to hunt.This should be done after careful study so we do notcreate problems or conflicts with other plants andanimals. This is called “introducing” or “reintroducing”a species. Elk were brought to Alaska so people couldhunt them and are considered an introduced species,although fossilized bones indicate elk once lived inInterior Alaska many thousands of years ago.

Twotypes of elk can be found in Alaska today: Rooseveltelk and Rocky Mountain elk.Elk, which are a member of the deer family, werefirst released into the wild on Afognak Island nearKodiak Island in 1929 and then to Etolin Island nearPetersburg in Southeast Alaska in 1987. Both of thesenew Alaska populations began with a small numberof elk brought in from Washington and Oregon. Theherds eventually grew in size. From the original eight transplanted calves, Afognak elk had expanded to approximately 1,200 to 1,500 animals by 1965. A series of hard winters withheavy snow accumulation during the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in extensive natural mortality and reduced calf production and survival. By the mid-1980sthe population had recovered to number about 1,200 animals. In the late 2000s the herd was stable at 900 elk.

Approximately two-thirds of the 50 elk introduced to Etolin Island died from predation, starvation, and accidents within 18 months of release. Despite the highmortality, the elk population had increased to an estimated 100–125 animals by the early 1990s and elk had successfully dispersed to neighboring islands,establishing a second breeding population on Zarembo Island. A current subjective estimate of the elk population on the two islands is approximately 400 animals,with about 75 percent on Etolin, and the remainder on Zarembo. Elk numbers on other islands are low.Factors which may limit the growth of elk populations include hunting, starvation, disease, predation by brown bears, and a lowered birth rate when the animalsbecome too numerous to be supported by the available food supply. Timber cutting and the development of logging roads also impact an area's carrying capacity forelk.

Today, elk are provide animportant source of meat for people.Elk now live on Afognak and Raspberry Islands andnumber about 900 elk in eight herds. They can swim inthe ocean to Kodiak Island but have never establisheda herd there. Southeast elk now live mainly on EtolinIsland and nearby Zarembo Island, and number about400.

Elk share many similarities with moose, deer andcaribou. They are usually smaller than moose andlarger than deer or caribou. Bulls (the males) standabout five feet tall at the shoulder; cows (the females)are about six inches shorter. The legs and neck of elkare usually darker in color than their body. Elk alsohave a distinctive light beige or yellow patch on theirrump.

Elk calves are born in late May or early June when abundant food is available for the mother and the mild weather increases the calves' chances forsurvival. Birth usually occurs under the cover of dense spruce forests, hidden from predators and protected from the elements. Calves are born with protectivecoloration (light spotted areas on the back which act as camouflage). A few days after giving birth, the mother joins other cow elk with calves. A single cow will often“babysit” with the calves while the remaining cows seek food. As summer progresses, elk bands move above timberline and feed on the alpine slopes where breezeskeep biting insects at bay and young plants are highly nutritious. By July, the calves, although still nursing, begin feeding on succulent forbs. Newborn elk calves  start outweighing about 35 pounds. Adult bull elk onAfognak Island can weigh up to 1,300 pounds!

An elk’s top twocanine teeth are called ivories. Though smallerthan they used to be, scientists believe they arethe remains of saber-like tusks that elk usedlong ago for fighting.A hundred or so years ago,there were only six land mammals on islandsof the Kodiak Archipelago: tundra vole, shorttailedweasel, little brown bat, river otter, redfox and brown bear. Because people wantedanimals to hunt for meat, they introduced Sitkablack-tailed deer and elk.

Elk need lots of food to survive!Elk are hardy animals whose large body size and herding tendencies require tremendous amounts of food. From late spring to early fall with a wide varietyoffood available, elk are mainly grazers, using grasses, forbs, and other leafy vegetation. By late fall they become browsers, feeding on sprouts and branches ofshrubs and trees. The elk can become its own worst enemy as large herds often damage their food supply by excessive stripping, trampling, and overcropping ofstaple food plants, including willow and elderberry. For this reason, it is important to keep elk herds from becoming too large in relation to the available food supply.


Alaska Mammals:

With 112 mammal species, Alaska ranks 12th of the 50 U.S. states in mammalian diversity.

Learn more about Alaskan mammals

Shrews Bats Cats
Canines Bears Weasels
Ungulates Rabbits Rodents
there are lots of elk in Alaska

young elk in alaska