They were standing in the street when we crested the hill. I’m certain the elk had heard us coming, but with the other town and traffic noise, they were probably waiting to see if we were headed their way before putting much effort into moving on. Their light rumps flashed in the van headlights as they hustled down the street or into the woods.
Elk have frequented our neighborhood in Coos Bay before, mowing down a neighbor’s freshly-planted shrubs, and leaving deep hoof-prints in gardens and fresh sign on the pavement. My husband came up the front walkway one evening several years ago and unknowingly trapped a cow elk in our front yard. She bolted past him to join the rest of the herd lumbering down the street, nearly knocking him over in the dark. High adventure.
Our Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti, sometimes Cervus elaphus) are one of four subspecies of Cervus canadensis, the second largest living member of the deer family. Although the scientific name cites Canada, Cervus canadensis once lived throughout most of North America, as well as in much of China. The “Roosevelt” of the common name is a reference to President Teddy Roosevelt.
Some people call North American elk “wapiti”; Merriam-Webster indicates “wapiti” is Shawnee for “white rump.” The subspecies in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada shows the most contrast in coloring, with a tan body and very dark brown head and neck.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the name “elk” is derived from “elch,” the German word for moose (Alces alces), the largest member of the deer family. Apparently, the early European settlers on our continent applied the label, mistaking our Cervus canadensis for their Alces alces. There are also several subspecies of moose around the Northern Hemisphere; one European subspecies have antlers that are more, well, “elk-shaped.”
Like the smaller deer, Roosevelt elk are grazers and browsers, generally preferring grasses and small forbs, but also browsing small trees and shrubs in winter, and adding mushrooms and lichens to their diet as needed. I’ve seen wide elk bites on skunk cabbage, though late in the year when the skunk cabbage is older and less pungent. Roosevelt elk seem to prefer forests and meadows and the shrubby edge environments between them. Also like deer, elk are primarily active around dawn and dusk.
Elk are harem animals, with each winning male guarding and herding his dozen or so cows. The formidable antlers of the bulls establish dominance via threat or fighting — with the older, healthier bulls with the biggest racks being the most successful. In mid- or late-summer, after growing all spring, the velvet on the antlers shrivels up and shreds off to reveal shiny, sharp weapons. The bulls promote the shredding by whacking the antlers on shrubs and small trees. The antlers fall off in mid-winter, after rutting season; the replacements will begin growing the following spring. Born in the spring, elk calves, like deer fawns, are spotted until their first winter.
Roosevelt elk don’t migrate, but do move around an area — including moving down out of the hills in winter (and in and out of neighborhoods). However, the elk so enjoy the old cattle pastures at Dean Creek Elk Reserve inland from Reedsport that the animals usually hang out there year round.
Having elk hang out in your yard is a big deal. Weighing between 700 and 1,100 pounds and standing up to 5 feet at the shoulder, a bull elk weighs about as much as a small dairy cow, but stands a foot taller at the shoulder.
An interesting visitor, but not one you want to literally run into.