Science Wednesday – Elk Spotting

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Last weekend, while taking a walk along one of Loveland’s bike trails, I came across eleven large, fuzzy butts. A rare surprise, indeed, but what was even a nicer surprise was who the butts belonged to.

Elk!

I kept my distance from the animals,* but was able to capture some beautiful shots.

I’ll admit to being initially surprised to see the elk (Cervus canadensis) where I did. Because of their presence and popularity in mountain communities like Estes Park, I associate elk with the Rocky Mountains, not the 7-11 across the street.

But, historically, these elk are right where they’re supposed to be. Like bison, deer and pronghorn, elk are traditional herbivores of the prairies. It wasn’t until the 1800s, as Europeans settled the American west and turned prairie into communities and farmland, that elk and other large grazers were pushed out of their historic range and up into the foothills and mountains.

Today, movement corridors like the Laramie Foothills-Mountains to Plains Project patchwork together public and private land to create pathways for elk and other animals to move between the mountains and the high plains. Communities like Loveland, nestled at the base of the foothills, are located within those corridors.

I was also surprised to see this many males together. Because I’m used to seeing elk during the fall mating season, when one male will guard a harem of females, all these males together seemed odd. But it’s not.

For most of the year, elk segregate themselves into single-sex groups. These young males (you can tell they’re male because they have antlers, and you can tell they’re young because the antlers are a little puny by elk-standards) will stick together until it’s mating time in the fall, and then they’ll compete with one another (and with males MUCH bigger than they are) for the available females.

A successful male will end up with a harem of often over 20 females, and unsuccessful males will hang around the edges of the harems, trying to sneak some elk-lovin’ when the dominant male isn’t looking. And they’ll urinate all over themselves, because apparently that’s a smell that keeps the ladies coming back.

But, seriously, with tushes like those, what lady wouldn’t want to join one of their harems?

*And why was I so careful to keep my distance?

The best rule to remember is this: leave wild animals alone. Especially the eau d’ urine scented ones.

Have any of you spotted elk out and about in town? What about other wildlife in your area that you didn’t expect to see?

 

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2 Responses to “Science Wednesday – Elk Spotting”


  1. 1 Doug March 18, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Grizzly bears used to live on the plains also. Lewis and Clark encountered one as far east as present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. They still wander out into the prairie in the vicinity of Glacier National Park.

    I have no desire to meet a bear up close, but I think they are cool animals. In general, they just seem to have a bad attitude toward the human race!

  2. 2 Katie March 18, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Records like the ones left by Lewis and Clark are so important to understanding the historical ranges of organisms. Museums work the same way – because of the specimens and records preserved in collections, we know a lot more about biodiversity and how it’s changing.


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