When most people think about Montana they usually think about two animals first, the grizzly bear and the elk. Elk which are also called wapiti are a larger cousin to the deer family. Wapiti is a Native American word which translates to light colored deer. Elk were once found in most of the North American continent. At one time there were close to 10 million elk in the North American continent. Montana is one of the few states that has large populations of the Rocky Mountain elk. Montana ranches are coveted for the elk that use the land and water and allow them to flourish in a private setting. Montana ranches wildlife continue to be a national treasure.
Hunting and predation has reduced the elk number to 700-800,000 of the Rocky Mountain species. Elk typically live 10-13 years and the bulls will weigh up to 700 lbs and the cows will weigh up to 500 lbs. At birth, calves will weigh 35 lbs. Their color is tannish with lighter patches on their rump. Their legs and neck are usually a darker brown.
Bull elk grow new antlers every year. It really is an amazing feat considering bull elk shed their antlers every March and begin to grow them back in May. They grow covered in velvet that is soft, sensitive and filled with blood for growth. The antlers will grow 300-350” plus of antlers for a mature bull by September. The velvet is rubbed off and the antlers turn into bone. If you consider that they have to grow 1” plus of antlers a day to have them ready for rut, it has to be a very painful process at times! A mature bull’s antlers can weigh 50+ lbs.
The Montana elk rut starts in September and is quite a sight to see. It is a great time to be on Montana ranches. The bulls start with wallowing in mud and coating themselves with urine perfume to attract the cows! Talk about musky! If you are ever out in the woods at this time of the year you usually smell the elk before you see them! Bulls round up their harem which can contain up to 20 cows. They do this by bugling which sounds like a shrill scream with a guttural ending. They will do this over and over while running and rounding up cows and warning other bulls to stay away. They also must protect against other bulls stealing their harem.
Numerous times the challenge from other bulls can end in fights where they spar with their antlers. These can be dangerous. They start with shoving back and forth where the bigger stronger bull usually wins. If they are evenly matched these fights can lead to injuries and death of the losing participant. Rut can exhaust bulls so much that they enter winter in a weakened state. The sights that Montana ranchers get to see in the private setting of the elk rut is worth the investment of buying the ranch to some.
Once cows have been bred and winter starts the elk will group back up with cows, calves and yearling bulls. The bulls will many times group up in bachelor groups or stay solo. The elk groups will head down to where grazing is easier. They will paw through snow to find any grass to carry them through the winter. Many times they will end up in the Montana ranches pasture and stay there for weeks on end. They feel safe from predators their and food is available.
In the spring the elk head back up to higher pastures of Montana ranches and start the birthing process. Cows will typically have one calf the first time they give birth. After that the cow might give birth to two calves. The calves will be able to stand and outrun a human by the time they are 20 minutes old and progress quickly after that.
The main predators are wolf, bear, cougar and coyotes on calves. Needless to say elk live a life full of constantly being on the lookout and moving. An elk is incredibly swift. They can beat a horse in a short race and especially over snow or rough terrain. It is quite a sight to see a bull elk running through thick timber with 350” of antlers on their head. Should they run into predators the elk’s defense includes antlers, a dangerous front hoof kick and keeping in groups to fend off predators. They can leap up to 8 ft tall to clear fences and logs. They are very majestic animals.
A couple of interesting facts on elk are they will actually raid bird nests and eat the baby birds and eggs. So elk can be meat eaters! Anything for protein! Another interesting fact is that on the Lewis & Clark expedition the group found elk to be their main sustenance. They killed 374 elk on the expedition. One more odd fact is that a bull elk measures 9 feet tall from hoof to top of antlers. Elk antlers are often used as elk antler chandeliers and furniture.
Montana has the largest migratory elk in the nation. It starts in Yellowstone National Park and heads well into the interior of Montana. This leads to elk starting in the park and being able to be hunted as they come onto private Montana ranches or National Forests. Montana’s elk herds count approximately 160,000 animals.
The elk is one of the most majestic North American animals and having Montana ranches for them to have refuge from public hunting and a place to breed is a national treasure that a very few lucky people are trusted with to keep a healthy herd along with the large areas of public land in Montana.
If this article interested you, you should read Best Montana Elk Rut Guide or Ranches for sale in Montana or Montana hunting land for sale. You can also read about the Pronghorn in Montana Ranches Wildlife Meet the Pronghorn.
If you want to read more about Elk here are some great sources:
Buzz Tatom is a Partner at Venture West Ranches. He moved to Montana 5 years ago and still owns the 5T ranch in Texas. He has a BBA from Texas Tech and an MBA from SMU. He is involved in a number of business ventures and built his Printing/Marketing firm 10 fold over 24 years before selling in 2011. He also enjoys teaching part time at MSU in business and mentoring students.