North American Elk – Hinterland Who’s Who


The North American elk, or wapiti, is the largest form of the red deer species Cervus elaphus. In general appearance, moose are obviously relatives of the well-known white-tailed deer. However, moose are much larger. Among Canadian deer, they are second in size only to elk. An adult bull moose is about 150 cm tall at the shoulder and weighs between 300 and 350 kg, although some large bulls approach 500 kg in late summer before the rutting, or breeding season. Cows are substantially smaller, but still have a shoulder height of 135 cm and an adult weight of around 250 kg. The coat color of the elk varies from reddish-brown in summer to dark brown in winter. Although it looks white from a distance, on closer inspection, the croup color is ivory to orange. In contrast to the rump, the head and neck are dark. Moose have long, blackish hair on the neck that is known as mane. Male moose are notable for their impressively large antlers. It is surprising that these large structures are cultivated new each year by animals over a period of a few months in spring and summer. The antlers look particularly large in summer when they are encased in velvet, a covering that protects them during growth. In late summer, velvet is rubbed from fully developed antlers, revealing bone structure. Freshly cleaned antlers are light gray in color, but they stain when rubbing and hitting vegetation during mating season. “Elk” is the name by which most Canadians know this majestic deer. “Wapiti,” meaning “white rump,” is the Indian name Shawnee and the common name preferred by scientists, because the animal known as “moose” in Europe is not a red deer at all, but a close relative of the North American elk. Other red deer, smaller and belonging to several subspecies, are found throughout the northern hemisphere: in Scotland and continental Europe, in North Africa and in Asia.

Signs and sounds

The moose is very vocal for an ungulate or hoofed animal. A person close to a group of moose may hear frequent grunts and squeals as they stay in contact with each other. When alarmed, the cows bark sharply to warn the rest of the group. The whistle of bulls in heat is a tingling sound on a frosty autumn morning. The hooves of moose are rounded and their footprints can be confused with those of year-round cattle in the field of distribution. Elk droppings, or droppings, like those of other deer, are in the form of pellets in winter, but in summer, when the animals are in new green fodder, they resemble those of cattle. Closer inspection, however, reveals traces of a pellet structure.

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Habitat and habits

Moose are sociable animals. They are rarely found without other moose nearby. The lifestyle of the herd is characteristic of animals living in the open field. However, moose populations today occupy forest or park regions, where small groups with an average of six or seven animals are common. Moose are long-lived animals: males survive up to an average of 14 years, while females live up to 24 years. Although they can travel a lot, each moose is strongly attached to certain localities within its range. Some, in fact, have home ranges of only a few square kilometers. Others have home ranges of several hundred square kilometers, of which they use different parts during different seasons. In the mountains, such individuals often summer in the high country and winter in the valleys. However, moose are versatile animals and some may reverse this pattern or make visits to their summer range during the winter, if snow conditions allow, and up to their winter range during the summer. Others may even switch between staying in a small area one year and using a large area the next. Bulls can occupy a “rutting range” that is separated from the localities where they are found during the rest of the year. Whatever their seasonal pattern, most moose use the same ranges year after year. Unique features Unlike other deer, moose have upper canine teeth or “eye.” These teeth are a hangover from earlier evolutionary stages and now serve no apparent purpose. Their smooth and rounded surface has made them attractive as jewelry. In the 1800s many moose were killed just to get canine teeth.

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When Europeans arrived in Canada, moose were widely distributed. Their range extended into southern Quebec, along the upper St. Lawrence (where they were probably one of the species recorded but ambiguously described by Jacques Cartier), and into southern Ontario. Its range continued around the northern margins of Lakes Huron and Superior and along the present-day U.S. border from Lakehead to the prairies of Manitoba, but in these areas its populations were sparse. Further west, on the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and to the north on the southern fringes of the boreal forest, the northernmost forest in the Northern Hemisphere, moose were numerous. In British Columbia, moose were found in the central and southern parts of the province east of the Coast Range, on the Lower Mainland around the mouth of the Fraser River, and on Vancouver Island. Relative to western populations, moose numbers must have been low in eastern North America, except in regions such as western Kentucky, where forests were disrupted by extensive grasslands. In any case, hunting extirpated moose from the east, including southern Ontario and Quebec, in the mid-1800s. Some moose may have survived in Ontario north of Lake Huron.

Relative to western populations, moose numbers must have been low in eastern North America, except in regions such as western Kentucky, where forests were disrupted by extensive grasslands. In any case, hunting extirpated moose from the east, including southern Ontario and Quebec, in the mid-1800s. Some moose may have survived in Ontario north of Lake Huron. The settlement of the Canadian prairies deprived moose herds of their habitat as it did with bison. However, dispersed populations continued to exist throughout the forest regions bordering the grasslands and in the western mountains. Moose numbers were at their lowest around 1900 in North America. Thereafter, the rate of settlement in marginal areas decreased, hunting in the market was greatly reduced, the number of people living subsistence lifestyles decreased, predators were reduced, and moose received increasing legal protection. In addition, large forest fires caused by settlers turned substantial areas of forest into grass, shrubs, and saplings, providing abundant fodder for the remaining moose. Moose were also reintroduced in areas of former range. In the Canadian Rockies, the remaining small population of moose in Banff and Jasper National Parks was dramatically increased by several hundred animals brought from Yellowstone National Park in the United States between 1917 and 1920. Moose were also transplanted to northern Ontario in the 1930s. In British Columbia, moose were introduced to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and in Yukon, moose were introduced northwest of Whitehorse in the early 1950s. The Yukon herd has maintained its numbers, but has not grown. The current population of moose in Canada is approximately 72,000. More than half of the animals (40,000) are found in British Columbia, mainly in the Kootenays and the Peace-Omineca region, but with a small population on Vancouver Island. Alberta’s 20,000 moose roam primarily in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Banff, Jasper and Waterton mountain national parks. There is a dispersed population in the park throughout central Alberta, where boreal forest, or northern, meets grasslands and the creation of Elk National Park has made a remarkable contribution to the survival of moose in Canada. The park grew from a reserve established in 1906 to protect a small band of remaining moose. Moose thrived, and currently the fenced park of less than 200 km2 supports more than 1 000 moose, as well as moose, bison and white-tailed deer. Elk Island has provided many moose for reintroductions and has also served as a research area for the study of the species. Manitoba currently has a herd of around 7,000 animals, whose distribution is centered in Riding Mountain National Park. The 15,000 moose in Saskatchewan are found mainly in the southern fringe of the boreal forest north of Prince Albert and in the areas of Moose Mountain, Cypress Hills and Duck Mountain in the south of the province.

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Elk are plant eaters. There are few plants that occur in their range that do not eat in certain areas under certain conditions. In winter they eat grasses when they can get them. However, when the snow becomes deep, they easily eat twigs of woody species, even conifers such as Douglas fir. In spring, herbs and sedges are favorite foods. As new growth of broadleaf herbaceous plants sprouts in early summer, moose include a high proportion of them in their diet. They also consume branches and leaves of shrubs and trees. A wide variety of nutritious foods are available for moose in early summer. This is also the time when cow moose are providing milk for their newborn calves. As the summer passes, the herbaceous plants dry out and the moose turn back into dry grasses and leafing, or twigs and shoots. When the freezing nights of autumn arrive, the leaves begin to fall in the trembling forests of trembling poplars in the western ranges of the moose. Moose include dried leaves in their diet until these are buried by snow. When winter comes, moose diets are largely controlled by snow. Moose dig craters in loose snow to expose dry grass and leaves, but when the snow becomes too deep or too hard, they must change their diet largely to woody twigs. In the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, moose must leave areas of deep snow and seek out places such as valley bottoms where snow cover is shallow or absent. In areas where deep snow rarely occurs, they can frequent high or low elevation ranges at any time of the year.

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The annual cycle of elk begins in spring with the release of winter snows and food shortages. This is when calves are born, increasing the size of the herd. Farrowing usually occurs in areas with which the cow is very familiar. Some cows may seek the same area to calve year after year. Others give birth to their young anywhere in their range when the time comes. Cows are separated from other moose and seek seclusion and cover themselves a few days before giving birth. Moose hide their calves for 10 days or more after birth. Calves are genetically programmed to remain calm and hidden as a defense against predators. Later, the mother and offspring join others in bands of cows/calves in the summer range. Starting in August, the quiet summer life of the moose comes to an end with the start of the breeding routine or season. The bulls, which have spent a lazy summer in small groups while their antlers grew large and heavy, now move into the cow/calf group and establish harems, or groups of cows they plan to mate with. In the process there is considerable fighting between the bulls. Large bulls eventually gain control of up to 20 or 30 cows and lead other males to the margins of the herds. This does not mean, however, that young males are totally out of the breeding. While the great masters of the harem are running away from intruders or cornering stray females on one side of their group, a young bull may sneak in and mate with a female on the other side. After the turmoil of routine, the bull elk leaves the females and moves to good foraging areas to regain its weight and condition losses before winter. Some return to the mountains to spend a few more weeks in the nutritious pastures of the alpine area before the snow forces them down. Moose usually, but not always, wait for the arrival of snow to go down into the valleys. There is considerable overlap between the winter ranges of bulls and cows. As bulls are larger and more powerful, they can travel and dig through deep snow more easily than cows, and in doing so they can have foraging areas to themselves.


main limiting factor in moose numbers in Canada has been the loss of habitat for agriculture. Fortunately, extensive areas remain for moose. Hunting serves to keep the number of moose within the carrying capacity of the ranges. In parks, catching and transplanting surplus animals sometimes reduces moose numbers. Apart from humanity, the most important predator of the moose is the wolf. Despite their size and power, moose are easily killed by wolves. The distribution of elk in Canada overlaps with the distribution of wolves, so most elk packs are killed to some extent by wolves. Black bears also kill a considerable number of moose. Recent studies have shown that in some areas black bears can kill up to 50 percent of elk calves. This predation occurs during the first two to three weeks of the calf’s life. Once the calves become strong enough to keep up with their mothers, and the mother and calf are reunited with the rest of the herd, most bear predation ceases. However, brown bears can kill an occasional adult moose. Coyotes take on some young, and mountain lions, which share the range of moose from the western Rocky Mountains, capture moose of all ages. Where predation and hunting do not keep them low, moose numbers usually increase until they are limited by lack of food. At high population levels, moose can have a significant impact on their range and food plants by grazing, navigating, and trampling vegetation. During severe winters or droughts, a significant number of moose may starve or predispose to disease. Managers of many of the Canadian elk populations that are not in the parks aim to keep numbers well below the maximum dictated by food resources so that moose are less likely to experience deaths. Moose are highly prized by hunters and are one of North America’s top big game species. In Canada, licensed hunters catch approximately 4,000 moose each year. Hunting generates local economic activity estimated at around $14 million per year. In addition, Aboriginal hunters take an unknown number. In parks where moose is not hunted, they gradually become habituated to the presence of humans. They can eventually become so tame that they go about their business undisturbed, even when people approach closely. Large numbers of habituated moose can be seen in Banff and Jasper National Parks in and around cities, especially in early spring. Habituated moose are important attractions in these parks and are an asset of great aesthetic and commercial value. It should always be borne in mind that animals habituated to humans can be dangerous if they get too close. Bulls, especially, should be given ample space during the early autumn mating season. In mountainous areas during the winter, moose share valley bottoms with major transportation corridors. This leads to many moose vehicle collisions, with disastrous results for moose and for humans and their cars. This costly hazard has been brought under control in Banff National Park by building a system of fences, cattle guards and underpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway.

The ease with which moose can become habituated to people and the value of products derived from them have recently aroused considerable interest in the domestication and rearing of animals. One of the most valuable elk products is its antlers. Since ancient times, Orientals have believed that medicinal preparations of elk antlers that have been removed while still in velvet are a general tonic and possibly an aphrodisiac, or a means of improving sexual desire. Therefore, Eastern medicine consumes large amounts of elk antler at a high price. Antlers are surgically removed when they have reached their maximum size, but before they harden; They are then dried, graded by grade and shipped to Asian markets. In many areas, moose and domestic cattle share the same ranges. Because both eat the same food and the presence of livestock brings human activity, there is some conflict between the two species. In mountainous areas where moose are concentrated in valleys that are also important for livestock, there is competition for scarce forage and disturbance of moose at a time when they are under stress due to severe weather. Such situations require close cooperation between ranchers and wildlife managers to keep problems under control. The future well-being of moose in general depends on cooperation between wildlife authorities and all land managers, including forest industries, oil and mining companies, park managers and Indian gangs, as well as ranchers. Despite these ongoing conflicts, Canadian elk populations are stable and healthy. It might be possible to reintroduce the animals to areas they previously occupied, but, given competing land demands by ranchers and others, and the space needed by wild elk predators, which are vital to a healthy ecosystem, the current moose population is likely large enough. With proper attention to its management, this splendid wild species will remain a permanent asset to Canada.

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Murie, O.J. 1951. The North American moose. Stackpole Company. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Boyce, M.S., & L.D. Hayden-Wing, eds. 1979. North American Moose: ecology, behavior and management. University of Wyoming, Laramie.

Thomas, J.W., and D.E. Toweill, editors. 1982. North American Moose. U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Management Institute, Stackpole Forest Service and Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

© Her Majesty the Queen by Right of Canada, represented by the Minister for the Environment, 1990. All rights reserved. Catalogue number CW69-4/89E ISBN 0-660-13639-2 Text: E.S. Telfer Photo: Robert McCaw

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