Elk in the Rocky Mountains and Tule Grasses

Elk Life

Elk make the sound of October. In tree-ringed meadows of the Rocky Mountains, bull elk arrive to bugle their invitations to cow elk and their challenges to other males. I have never heard the sound since I have had the privilege of visiting the Rocky Mountains only during April and July. It is described as low sound turning into a screech followed by an emphatic "chuff, chuff."

Elk seem like forest animals, but actually the Rocky Mountain race of elk prefer a mix of meadows and forest. In the summer, herds of cows and calves seek out higher elevations featuring a higher density of trees. Herds of bachelor bulls roam nearby. But in the winter, both groups descend from the mountains and migrate to areas with more open spaces.

As their living space changes during the seasons so does their diet. In summer, elk prefer to eat almost all grasses: 80% of their diet is grasses and only 20% is twigs or bark. However, in winter, this mix changes to 50-50. Their favorite foods are dandelions, violets, aster, and clover. This menu sounds like a field guide to a mountain meadow.

The tule elk of California don't live in forests at all. This elk is my kind of elk, because they live in marshes, one of my favorite landscapes. They also were once common in the grasslands of California's Central Valley, but over-hunting left only one pair alive at the turn of the century. A compassionate rancher protected this one pair, and beginning from that pair, a population now thrives in places such as Point Reyes National Seashore and Grizzly Island Wildlife Area in Northern California.

The Rocky Mountain elk, tule elk, and also the Roosevelt Elk are not different species but rather different races living in different habitats.

Elk have an ice cream sundae kind of appearance. Their bodies are pale cream, but their heads, necks, and legs are chocolate brown. The Shawnee word for elk, "wapiti," means pale rump and refers to this appealing coloration.

Each hair in the fur of elk is hollow to trap warm air during snowy and icy winters. This feature elk share in common with reindeer.

A Quest for Elk

When my mother and I drove across the country and we arrived in Rocky Mountain National Park, one of her main goals was to see an elk. It became almost laughable as she tried to drive on the winding roads, and I looked out constantly to try to find one. As we were almost headed out, she spotted an elk in a meadow. I didn't quite see it.

Years later, my husband and daughter and I drove only 15 minutes into the park from Estes Park, CO, and we spotted and photographed some elk right off the road in a meadow. Our daughter missed them, because she was sleeping.

The elk love meadows, and this habit makes them easier to see than if they just remained in forested areas.

We have seen tule elk by driving out into Grizzly Island Wildlife Area in Solano County, CA. At first, I just saw some sort of bland-looking tan shapes. They didn't line up with my majestic image of elk. They just looked like white-tailed deer from a distance. But as we got closer, it became clear that they were really elk in a marsh. It changed my whole perception of elk.

The whole distinction between elk and deer has always been confusing for me, and upon further research, the distinction is about as clear as the muddy brown color of the elk. In Europe, the world "elk" refers to an animal that we would call a moose in North America. What we call an elk or wapiti is an animal very closely related to what is called the red deer in Britain.

Elk Symbolism

The Minneapolis Institute of Art showcases a beautiful pipe bowl featuring an elk carving. It is a work of the Lakota people, a tribe, not of mountain forests, but of the Great Plains, fitting for the elk that roams through both forests and grasslands.

According to the museum, the Lakota associated elk with relationships and marriage.

The pipe bowl is a pale ochre color, and yellow was often associated with elk, perhaps due to the buff color of the animal itself. The stone came from a specific quarry that is now protected as part of the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota.

The Lakota believed that the smoke of the pipe bowl delivered prayers to the Great Spirit. I was excited to learn this, because just past this weekend, at a local art show, I saw a painting by a local artist that featured smoke. The scene took place in a radically different geographic location, yet, to me, it shares the same themes as the Lakota pipe bowl. The painting depicted a mother and child coping with the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan. From an iron cooking pot, smoke rose out and appeared to embrace the mother and child. I don't know what the artist intended, but I found the image of that smoke to be comforting and prayerful, similar to the smoke from the pipe bowl.