Elk (Cervus elaphus) – Ecological Profile


(Schroetlin, 2017- www.kenterphotography.com)

Written By: Ashley McNeill,Chris Reinhart, Cassie Luff & Danielle Young

Distribution:  Elk (Cervus elaphus) are only found in North America, and were historically the most widely distributed cervidae in North America. However due to numerous factors, the range now is much sparser. The majority of the populations living within the rocky mountain range in Canada and the United States . A small population of reintroduced Elk in Ontario are living in the areas of Nippissing/French River, North Hastings/Bancroft, Lake of the Woods, and Lake Huron North Shore, Which represent a portion of their historic range. In 1996, there were only 2 small herds of Elk in Ontario. Figure 1 shows the current range in North America. Figure 2 shows the sites, since 1996, where Elk have been re-introduced into Ontario.


Figure 1: The global distribution of Elk, C. e. canadensis, which is only found in North America and mainly concentrated in the Rocky Mountain range in the West, with small pockets of populations scattered elsewhere. (Basemap:ESRI 2015, Information obtained from Dunsmore 2010.)

distrib 2.png

Figure 2: C.e. canadensis are a recently introduced species in Ontario, the brown spots demonstrate the initial sites that Elk were first introduced back into Ontario (Basemap: ESRI, 2015; Information obtained from Bonnechere Algonquin First Nations, 2011)

Habitat: Elk can be found in a variety of different types of ecosystems, temperate forest, boreal forest and grasslands. Selection generally depends on resource availability as well as predator distribution. Larger herds will put more consideration into the territory of their predators, whereas smaller herds will choose sites with better resources that are more readily available. Other factors that influence habitat selection include  availability of shelter and cover, temperature, water sources, the elevation, slope and lastly how much snow cover falls in the winter months.(Popp,McGeachy,Hamr 2013) It is common for elk to utilize different habitats during different times of the year. Forests that consist of Balsam poplar, trembling aspen and white birch were popular throughout all four seasons, but during the winter month’s elk can be found in forests containing trees such as spruce, jack pine, poplar and white birch. (Popp,McGeachy,Hamr 2013) Although these animals are mostly found in forested areas, during the spring months they have also been known to migrate through meadows and grasslands.

Reproductive Strategy: Elk are considered to show a typical K-strategist reproductive strategy. Elk have relatively long lifespans, and breed once a year and typically have only 1 calf. The Cow leaves the herd and finds a suitable area to give birth and return to the herd a few weeks later. The Cows form herds consisting of other cows and other calves and they together provide added protection for the calves from predators which are the most at risk (National Geographic, N.D.)   Table 1 demonstrates the key factors determining the Elks classification as a K-strategist.

Table 1: Summary of the reproductive strategies of Elk, C. e. Canadensis, compared to r and K strategists. It should be noted that Elk carry characteristics of K-strategist.

Characteristics r-strategist K-strategist Elk
Lifespan Short Long Average lifespan is 8-12 years, which is in the middle considering all other Cerviae
Litter Size Large Small Small, typically only 1 calf
Parental Investment/ care Little to none Needed in order to survive Cows and calves form large groups and defend the young
Frequency of Reproduction Once or multiple times during a short period Multiple times but over a long period Once a year, usually early summer
Additional Factors Usually live/can be found in  disturbed sites Typically require stable and healthy ecosystems to survive Require a variety of healthy ecosystems to survive seasons

Survivorship: The average lifespan of an Elk is estimated to be 8-12 years, if the environmental conditions are favourable. This supports a Type 1 survivorship curve, because these species have a higher probability of survivorship at a younger age, and tend to die in their older years. Elk travel in large groups known as herds, and therefore use their combined senses in order to aid in their survival. Elk have the ability to sense danger through the use of their exceptional hearing ability. In assistance with their hearing, they have a wide sense of vision due to the placement of their eyes, which help them sense even the smallest of movements. The males (cows) also use a bugle call to warn the others of possible danger, which enhances the survival rate of the herd.


Dispersal and Vectors: Elk migrate and move throughout the landscape on foot. They usually disperse in small groups over large areas. Outside the breeding season, bull elk commonly associate in small “bachelor herds” and cows and calves remain in small groups of approximately 3 to 10 cow-calf pairs (Thomas & Toweill, 1982). However, elk face a major barrier that is directly in relation to humans. Cervus elaphus are significantly affected by major roadways. Morgantini (2001) concluded that elk in Alberta were negatively affected in the 1940’s and 1950’s by the construction of a forestry trunk road in the foothills east of Banff. According to biologist Luigi Morgantini, “elk suffered when the Alberta government built a forestry trunk road through the foothills east of Banff in the 1940’s and 1950’s.”  Within a few years of the road being built most of the regions elk had abandoned the area and shifted several miles to smaller meadows closer to the mountains. The existence of elk in an area corresponds directly to the quantity of roads, as elk tend to move away and abandon areas that have a high road density. Another factor that influences the dispersal of elk is hunting. Barret (2011) found that hunting A study conducted in Alberta, Canada by George Barrett found that hunting causes major movements of elk herds.  Elk travel willingly, on their own however, barriers created by roads and the impact of hunting have a significant effect on the animal’s dispersal. (Tighem, 2001)

Special Considerations:  Elk populations are increasing. As elk require grasslands to forage on they are starting to enter pasture land. Farmers are concerned as they do not want elk feeding on their pasture land or spreading disease to their livestock. Due to this there is an increased amount of hunting because the elk are now becoming a nuisance. (Thomas & Toweill, 1982) Wolf predation on elk is another consideration. A study was conducted in Yellowstone National Park in May 2003- April 2006. The study monitored the mortality of northern Yellowstone elk (Cervus elaphus) calves to determine the cause for their population decline. The calf:adult ratio was significantly lower, it was found that this was a result following the restoration of wolves (Canis lupus) (Barber-Meyer, S. M., Mech, L. D., & White, P. J., 2008).


Agency, P. C., & Canada, G. of. (2012, January 24). Parks Canada – elk island national park – background. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/elkisland/natcul/elkisland-we.aspx

Hamr, J., Mallory, F. F., & Filion, I. (2016). The history of elk (Cervus canadensis) restoration in Ontario. The Canadian Field-Naturalist, 130(2), 167. doi:10.22621/cfn.v130i2.1842

Knight, J. (2014, March). Modifying Fences to Protect High-Value Pastures from Deer and Elk. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from Montana State University, http://animalrange.montana.edu/documents/extension/modifiedfencesmg.pdf

McIntosh, T.E., Rosatte, R.C., Hamr, J., & Murray, D.L. (2014). Patterns of Mortality and Factors Influencing Survival of a Recently Restored Elk Population in Ontario, Canada. Restoration Ecology, 22(6), 806-814. doi:101.111/rec 12145

 Popp, J. N., McGeachy, D. C., &Hamr, J. (2013). Elk (Cervus elaphus) Seasonal Habitat Selection in a Heterogeneous Forest Structure. International Journal Of Forestry Research, 1-7. doi:10.1155/2013/415913

Roman. (2016, August 16). Survivorship Curve HW – Mrs.Roman’s Honors Biology. Retrieved February 05, 2017, from https://sites.google.com/site/mrsromanshonorsbiology/assignments/survivorshipcurvehw

Ryckman, M. J., Rosatte, R.C., McIntosh, T., Hamr, J., & Jenkins, D. (2010) Post release Dispersal of Reintroduced Elk (Cervus elaphus) in Ontario, Canada. Restoration Ecology, 18(2), 173-180. DOI:10.1111/J. 1526-100X.2009.00523.X

Thomas, J. W., & Toweill, D. E. (1982). Elk of North America: Ecology and Management. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books.

Tighem, K. V. (2001). Elk & Deer: Antlered Animals of the West. Canmore, Alberta: Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd.


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