Elk Island National Park of Canada
Watching wildlife be wild is one of the most unique experiences one can have while visiting any national park. Elk Island is home to many species of wildlife typical of the southern boreal plains and plateaux natural region. Watch plains bison, woods bison, moose, elk and deer graze in their natural habitats.
Spring is calving time in Elk Island. Cow elk hide their calves for 10 days or more after birth. Orange coloured bison calves are easy to spot on the landscape at this time of year. Animals can be more aggressive during the calving season; extra caution should be taken to give wildlife plenty of room.
Summer is breeding season for the bison. The “roaring” of the bull bison can be heard day and night, as bulls challenge each other in rutting ritual. Opportunities to view plains bison, moose, elk and deer are best at dusk and dawn as animals feed before bedding down. Beavers are also busiest at dusk and dawn.
Autumn is the breeding season for members of the deer family. Elk are highly vocal animals; when alarmed, cows give sharp barks to warn the rest of the group. The whistling bugle of rutting bull elk is a spine-tingling sound and an experience unto itself on a frosty autumn morning. Enjoy the sounds of Astotin Lake; many species of birds use Astotin Lake as a staging area before they fly south for the winter.
Winter is an excellent time to watch for elk and moose. Wary, elusive elk are easier to spot as they spend more daylight hours foraging for food.
Year Round Scenic Wildlife Viewing Drives
There is something new to see with each season. Tune in to FM 93.3 seasonal information on what is happening in Elk Island.
Yellowhead Highway (Hwy 16) bisects Elk Island National Park for 10km. As you travel on the highway, watch for wood bison to the south and plains bison to the north.
Elk Island Parkway is the major roadway through the Park: 20km north and south. Plains bison, moose, elk, deer and coyotes may be seen. Bison herds gather during the mating season known as the rut (mid July to mid-August); elk herds are commonly seen during the winter. Take your time and enjoy the view!
Tawayik Lake Picnic Area is located 1km off the Elk Island Parkway. The short drive takes you to a serene lakeshore picnic area with an accessible viewing platform and telescope. Shorebirds and waterfowl are abundant and bison often graze in the area.
Traveling On The Parkway
Be patient and careful as motorists may not be familiar with the Park and may stop suddenly. Animals may attempt to flee from a car by continuing to run alongside the vehicle. If safe to do so, pull over or slow down until the animals safely leave the road.
Exhibits and Viewpoints
Exhibits and viewpoints are located at most trailheads. Some of the most spectacular views can be seen on the shores of Astotin and Tawayik Lakes, especially at sunrise and sunset. When safe to do so, pull over to enjoy the wildlife and scenery; use a road pull off site, a trailhead parking lot, or watch for signs indicating viewpoints.
From Dusk to Dawn
Be extra careful at sunrise, sunset and at night, this is when animals are most likely to be on the road. Animals may panic when they see your headlights; slow down until you are well past them.
Get to Know Some of our Featured Animals to Ensure you Have a Safe Visit
Bison are the largest native terrestrial mammals in North America. In Elk Island the wood bison and plains bison live in separate fenced areas of the park to ensure they don’t interbreed.
Bison are a herding species and are free-roaming throughout the park. The wood bison are located on the south side of Highway 16 and are often seen along the fence line from your vehicle. Walk the Wood Bison Trail located in this area to get a closer look at these mammals in their natural habitat.
Plains bison are located on the north side of Highway 16 and are often seen in the Bison Loop Road area during the spring, summer and fall months. After heavy snowfall the Bison Loop Road becomes closed for the winter and re-opens in spring. Plains bison are also seen throughout many areas of the park; on trails or grazing in the grass off the Elk Island Parkway
CAUTION! YOU ARE IN BISON COUNTRY
Bison are wild animals. Although they may appear docile they are dangerous and unpredictable and may charge without warning. Harassing is unlawful and puts yourself and other visitors in danger of these animals.
Helpful safety tips:
- Give bison the right of way and stay at least three bus lengths away (100 meters).
- Stay in your vehicle, drive slowly and do not approach bison on foot along the roadside.
- During the mating season known as the rut (mid-July to mid-August), bulls are aggressive and may pose extra danger.
- Avoid approaching bison where their escape routes are limited; they may charge more readily.
- If you encounter bison while hiking, don’t try to scare them away and don’t approach them. Make them aware of your presence, and if they don’t move walk slowly around them at a safe distance, always keeping an eye on them. If necessary, return to the trailhead.
- Never enter a heard of bison on foot or come between two animals, especially a cow and her calf.
- Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times while in the park, as they may provoke a bison attack.
Wood Bison (south of Highway 16)
Size: average length 3.9 metres
Average Weight: bull 840kg
Pelage: winter coat is dark brown; little or no chap hair on forelegs. Cape does not form a distinct boundary from the rest of the body.
Head: massive heavy head and longer neck; straight long hair on head, sloping down on forehead, horns extending over hair, small pointed beard
Hump: square shoulder hump; highest point well forward of shoulder
Tail: longer with long hairs
Diet: grasses and sedges
Plains Bison (north of Highway 16)
Size: average length 3.4 metres
Average Weight: bull 730kg
Pelage: winter coat is medium brown; chaps of long hair on forelegs – usually lighter in colour. In summer, cape forms a distinct boundary from the rest of the body.
Head: massive heavy head and short neck; frizzy hair on head
Hump: round shoulder hump; highest point over front legs
Diet: grasses and sedges
For more information on Bison management
Size: second largest member of the deer family at 4 to 5 feet tall
Average Weight: bulls up to 450kg
Pelage: mainly medium brown with cream coloured rump
Head: dark brown throat mane, only males have antlers
Diet: grazer-eats grasses and sedges in the spring and summer; browses on twigs in the winter
There are more than 600 elk in Elk Island National Park. Watch for elk while walking a trail, driving the Parkway, or follow the boundary roads along the fence line of the Park. Elk are much easier to see in the fall and winter months because there is less foliage on the trees camouflaging them and they spend more daylight hours foraging for food. Elk often are in areas with lots of sedges and grasses. In the spring (mid-May to end of June), cow elk can be especially dangerous during calving season. Bull elk are most dangerous during mating season (mid-September to the end of October).
For information on Elk management and transplant history
Size: largest member of deer family at 6 to 7 feet tall
Average Weight: bull 450kg
Pelage: dark brown upperparts fade to grey on legs
Head: long with a humped nose and a belling hanging from the throat. Males have shovel like antlers
Diet: browser – eats twigs in winter and leaves in summer; aquatic plants for salt
Moose are solitary browsers and are often found feeding on leaves and twigs, or aquatic plants for salt. Moose mate during the fall months (late-September to end of October) where bulls call to their mates making a heavy grunting sound and cows call back producing a wail like sound. Look for moose on walking trails or drive the Elk Island Parkway. Like elk, moose are easier seen during fall and winter months due to less foliage on trees. Moose like to hang out in boggy areas and areas with low bushes. In the spring cow moose can be dangerous during calving season. Bull moose are most dangerous during mating season.
Deer are common in Elk Island National Park. Both the white tailed deer and mule deer are found in the Park and can often be seen grazing in the summer or browsing in the winter near walking trails, the west side of Administration road about .5km in and driving the boundary roads near the fence lines of the Park. Deer are anxious animals and can be wary of humans. Sit down on one of the park benches while on a trail or stop and turn off your vehicle on a roadside pull off, be patient and wait for the deer to come to you. Deer avoid noisy areas and will take refuge in bushes and trees. In the spring, Does (female deer) are protective of their fawn (offspring) and in the fall bucks, (male deer) are often seen chasing does in spirit of the mating season. Learn the differences of the white-tailed deer and mule deer below.
Size: smaller and more solitary than mule deer
Average Weight: buck 90 kg
Pelage: brownish-grey to brownish-red
Head: face has white throat and eye rings. Only males have antlers.
Diet: grazer in the summer; browser in fall and winter (buds and twigs of shrubs and
saplings and needles of evergreens)
Size: larger and stockier than white-tailed deer
Average weight: buck 100 kg
Pelage: brownish-grey during the summer; grey during the winter
Head: dark forehead, tan face, black muzzle, and large prominent ears with black border.
Only males have antlers.
Diet: grazer in the spring and summer; browser in the fall and winter (twigs,
saplings and shrubs)
American White Pelican - often seen on Astotin Lake
© Parks Canada / 1995
Elk Island is also known as a birders paradise with over 250 bird species recorded in the park. The transitional zone between boreal forest and aspen parkland holds several distinct habitats within a small area. This variety of upland habitat and extensive wetlands provides opportunities for many species of birds to forage and breed here.
Great Blue Heron - often seen near the shore of any pond or lake
© Parks Canada / 2001
Astotin Lake, just 14 km north on the Parkway from Hwy 16, is a major wetlands area where waterfowl can be seen on the lake. Walk the Shoreline Trail (#10), Lakeview Trail (#6), Living Waters (#8) boardwalk, or drive Administration road and park on one of the pull off sites to get a spectacular view of wetland birds. Don’t forget about the many other walking trails in Elk Island that are home to birds that exist in aspen parkland, mixed wood, aspen forest, black spruce bog, and grasslands habitats.
White-breasted Nuthatch – often found in deciduous or mixed forests
© Parks Canada / 2007
Canada Goose – often seen on Astotin Lake© Parks Canada / 1995
Pileated Woodpecker- nest in the broad trunk of an old aspen tree
© Parks Canada / 1992
American Robin – active during the day hunting insects and eating berries
© Parks Canada / 2006
American Bittern – walks quietly among cattails and bulrushes
© Parks Canada / 2004
Trumpeter Swan Re-introduction Program
In 1987, Elk Island National Park began a trumpeter swan reintroduction program. The trumpeter swan population declined in the 1800's when the settlement of the prairies resulted in over-hunting and loss of critical habitat. After an absence of over a hundred years, the largest waterfowl in North America has once again firmly established itself in the park and surrounding Beaver Hills area. Swans are very timid and are easily disturbed during the summer months when they are defending their territorial lakes. During the spring and the autumn periods when swans congregate with other waterfowl, they are less timid and may be viewed safely from a distance. The best opportunity for the public to view swans is on Astotin Lake in the fall. They should only be observed from the shoreline and never approached in watercraft. Minimizing harassment to the swans and maximizing their sense of security is vital to the success of the transplant program.
A fair number of the breeding and non-breeding trumpeter swans in the area use Astotin Lake as a "staging" lake each fall before migrating south for the winter. Many waterfowl "stage" together in large numbers on certain lakes each fall before they migrate. Don't be surprised if you see 2000 white trumpeter impersonators (the little lowly tundra swan) this fall too, staging on Astotin.
For more information on Trumpeter Swans
Having A Safe Visit
Parks Canada wants to help you enjoy your trip and stay safe. Please limit your impact on park wildlife by giving all animals the respect they deserve and the space they need. Enjoy a safe visit and ensure that future generations have the chance to see wildlife that is truly wild.
To Increase Your Enjoyment While on the Trails
- Travel with others, on established trails, during daylight hours
- Dress in layers, carry sufficient water, insect repellent and sunscreen
- Pick only trails suitable for your fitness level. Let someone know where you are going, and when you expect to be back
- Be prepared for rapid changes in weather
- Stay on the trail; retrace your steps if unsure of your route or if you encounter threatening wildlife
- Cell phone reception is unreliable
To learn more about Elk Island’s trails such as distance, location and what you’ll expect to see on the trail
If You Are Approached by a Predator
Predators occur in many shapes and sizes and help prevent overpopulation of prey species, which helps maintain ecological integrity. Currently, there are no large resident predators in Elk Island, though predators such as black bears and cougars have been known to pass through the area. If a predator approaches you, send a clear message that you are NOT potential prey.
- Pick up small children immediately
- Do anything you can to make yourself look bigger
- Be prepared to use pepper spray on bears if you have it
- Fight back aggressively if attacked
- DO NOT crouch, play dead, run, or turn your back to an animal
- Keep your pet on a leash and walk them during daylight hours only
Do Not Touch or Feed Wildlife
- Your body odour or chemicals on your skin can harm wildlife. Human food may be difficult for the animals to digest and may condition them to being fed, resulting in the loss of their ability to fend for themselves.
Minimize Wildlife Harassment
- Calling or enticing an animal puts you and the animal at risk. Elk bugling, game calling and coyote howling are considered wildlife harassment and are prohibited.
Keep Pets on a Leash
- For your safety, pets must be kept on a leash at all times. Droppings must also be removed.
Keep 100 metres (300 feet) Away From Large Mammals
- Wild animals are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Never approach nesting colonies, dens, lairs, beaver lodges, dams or an animal with young.
- Poaching includes killing wildlife, collection of wildlife parts such as skulls, horns and antlers, removal of eggs and picking of flowers, plants, berries, and mushrooms. Poaching is strictly prohibited, for more information
Getting That Perfect Photograph
For many people, getting that perfect photograph of wildlife in the Park is the highlight of their visit. Photographers who travel the park in search of good photo opportunities have a special responsibility to wildlife and fellow visitors. The following guidelines will help you be a good park steward.
- Use one of the road side pull-off sites along the Elk Island Parkway or Administration road to park your vehicle while taking a photograph
- Do not surround, crowd or follow an animal
- Never put people (especially children) at risk by posing them with wildlife
- Do not stalk or pursue wildlife
- Never follow an animal into a bush
- Do not try to entice wildlife by feeding or by simulating animal calls (i.e. elk bugling)
- Do not honk your car horn at an animal and keep a safe distance
- Stay on pathways and trails; do not trample vegetated areas
- Be Patient!