Elk in Banff National Park
If there is one large animal that you are almost guaranteed to see during your visit to Banff National Park it is elk. They are top on the list of animals that many wildlife watchers want to see. Elk are the second largest deer in the park next to moose. Other deer found in the park are caribou, mule deer and white tailed deer.
Elk are also a vital part of Banff's ecology. They are the main herbivore, or plant eater, in the park and in turn a major food source for predators such as wolves.
Elk have always been part of the natural ecology of the park but probably in fewer numbers than we see today. When Banff National Park was created in 1885, only a few elk were seen in the Bow Valley. By 1906, numbers of elk were so low they seemed to have disappeared. But ten years later, elk populations were up naturally, as well as with additional help from the introduction of 235 elk from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1918-20. Today, elk are the most numerous large animal with close to 350 found in the park; over 200 of them live in the lower Bow Valley close to the town of Banff.
What's in a Name Anyway?
Elk are ungulates, which means they have hooves. The Latin name for elk is Cervus canadensis. They are also called "wapiti" - Shawnee for "white rump." A male elk is correctly called a stag and a female is called a hind. Most locals refer to them as bulls and cows.
Elk are light brown with dark faces, necks and legs. They have a distinguishing creamy-coloured rump patch with stubby tail. A bull elk at his prime is awesome to see. His wide branching antlers may grow to 1.2m (4') in width and length, and weigh up to 22 kg (48 lb.) He himself may weigh up to 180 - 450 kg (400 - 1000 lb.) Females weigh one third less than bulls and lack antlers.
Bulls grow a new set of antlers each spring and then cast them the following winter.
How Old is That Elk?
Yearling elk and calves are fast growers, but you can tell them apart from their mothers by the size of their heads. Young elk have proportionally shorter heads to bodies than adults.
Some people claim you can age a bull elk by the number of branches or tines it has on its antlers. But this is not a true indication of age. Young bulls with a single tine or "spike" are called "spikers" and are in their second year. After that they will grow at least one more tine per year (up to 7 tines per antler), but this is not predictable as antler growth depends on their general healthy condition. A young bull in excellent health may have the same number of tines as a much older bull in poorer condition.
An Elk's Diet
Most members of the deer family — such as moose and mule deer — are browsers, feeding almost entirely on the twigs and leaves of shrubs and trees. In contrast, elk are both grazers and browsers. They spend a lot of their time eating -- they have to. In summer they eat lots of grasses, plants and leaves to fatten up for the fall mating season and the long winter ahead. In winter, dried woody food such as dried grasses, twigs and bark makes up the majority of their diet and takes longer to digest.
Most elk move around to find the best food available. The elk of Banff National Park are considered to be partial migrants. This means that some of them migrate at certain times of the year or disperse to new areas. Some stay in the same area all their lives. Others may switch depending on the conditions of habitat.
What Eats Elk?
Cougars, wolves, and bears are the natural enemies of elk. Although hunting is not allowed within national parks, human activities — such as highway and railway accidents — account for a proportion of elk deaths each year within BanffNational Park. On average, 70 elk die from cars or trains each year.
Spring & Fall are Special Times of The Year
From mid-May to early July, cow elk go off into secluded woodlands to have their single young (twins are uncommon.) For the first three weeks of an elk's life it is defenseless to predators, so its mother keeps it well hidden in thickets. She licks her calf all over to make sure it is perfectly clean and clear of any smells that may attract predators. With its lack of smell and spotted coat, the calf is carefully camouflaged in the tall grass. During this time, the mother elk visits the calf only a few times a day, standing guard not far away. She is always at the ready to strike out with her sharp hooves if her calf is threatened or to act as a decoy to lead the predator away from the calf. Once the calf has gained its running legs, it re-joins the herd with its mother.
Only cows, calves and young bulls make up these summer herds. They rely on the safety of a group to protect them from predators. Mature bulls, on the other hand, remain solitary or in small bachelor groups. They must find the best food for rapid body and antler growth during the short growing season. The sexes join together during the breeding season, or "rut." Mature bulls gather cows and their calves into harems. Young bulls usually look on from the sidelines. Once the rut is over, elk stay in loose mixed herds until spring. Then the sexes separate again until fall.
Elk are the most vocal deer. Cows and calves keep in contact with squeals, chirps and mews. Barks warn others of danger. In the fall, the woods are noisy with the bugling of bull elk, attracting cows into a harem. A bull elk sends out a high pitched roar followed by low coughs or grunts. A bull's superior health and fitness is advertised through his bugling skills as well as his physical appearance. An elk's bugle wafting through the forest or open grassland informs other elk of his presence. Cows are attracted to the strength advertised in such a call and other bulls may approach to challenge the bugler's prowess.
Elk "Body Language"
Elk also communicate by posture. During breeding season, a bull will stand erect and at a side for cows and competitors to view his antlers and body size for dominance. To keep cows within the harem, a bull may cock his antlers back towards his rump to send the message to stay within the group. At any time of the year, an elk will show its discomfort by grinding its teeth, curling its lower lip back, or laying its ears back against its head. It is important for us to recognize this behaviour when viewing elk.
Signs of Elk
Even though elk are common in the park, sometimes you just can not find them. As with all wild animals, it's an elk's nature to move around or take shelter in the shade of a forest. Even if you do not find the animals, you can still find clues of their presence.
First, look to the trees. The most obvious sign of elks' presence is told on the trunks of aspen trees. Healthy aspen bark has a greenish tinge to it — it has chlorophyll and is nutritious for elk. Blackened chew scars on aspen trees reach to almost 2 metres from the ground — as far as an elk can reach in winter. Over time, continual chewing can weaken an aspen tree and make it vulnerable to disease and insects. Concentrations of elk around the Banff townsite have had a heavy impact on aspen stands in the area.
Elk also nip at the tips of bushes and small trees, so they look pruned. The height of a browsed sapling indicates the height of last winter's snow cover. The shredded bark of young pine trees tells of a big bull rubbing his antlers against the hard pitchy surface. He is polishing his antlers against the tree for the rutting season.
In the winter or in wet areas you can find elk tracks (10 cm/ 4" long) in snow or mud. Flattened grass or depressions identify where an elk has bedded down for a while. A musky or gamey smell may linger or there are long outer guard hairs or scat left in the bed. Or you can see where an elk has pawed through the snow to get at food.
Finally, there are also the signs of what an elk has left behind. Elk droppings are usually small oval pellets, up to 3.8cm (3/4 - 1 1/2") in length. When vegetation is especially moist, so are the droppings.
Best Places to See Elk:
Your chances of seeing elk in the eastern part of the park are excellent year round. Drive the park roadways such as the Bow Valley Parkway and the Minnewanka Loop, the road around the golf course or near open grasslands surrounding the town of Banff. Always obey the speed limits and watch for elk near roads. They can suddenly dart into traffic without warning.