Elk or Wapiti

From Ohio History Central
…They, also, shed their coat in spring and area reddish in color during the summer like the deer. In fall they are light gray and in winter dark gray. The bucks have long, heavy antlers with many prongs. These they shed each year as to the does. The tail is quite short. As the skins are very thick and heavy and of no particular value, elk do not tempt the Indians to the chase. Occasionally, one is shot that happens near an Indians, but most of they flesh is left in the forest for beasts of prey, even though the animals are always fat, in summer as in winter and do not become lean, like the deer.


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Scientific Name: Cervus elaphus
Habitat: Open woodlands
Adult Weight: 600 lbs., average male; 300 lbs., average female
Adult Body Length: 6 1/2 ft.
Breeding Period: September - November
Calves Per Year: 1
Foods: Herbivore - Grasses, dandelions, clover and woody browse such as cedar, willow, sumac, maple, mountain ash and serviceberry
Elk are in my estimation most like the European stag and I have often thought that they must be the same species and that what is here called the stag is the European fallow deer, but as I have seen neither stag nor fallow deer in Europe I can not speak authoritatively.

David Zeisberger, History of North American Indians, 1779-1780

The word "elk" comes from the British name for "moose." This name was incorrectly given to the animal that early Europeans settlers found in North American. Elk are also known as red deer, because of its summer coat, and "wapiti," a Shawnee word which means "white deer," describing the bleached coat coloring the elk has in the spring.

The male elk is known for its large antlers. These antlers, weighing between 33-44 lbs., are shed in the late winter and early spring and re-grown by fall every year. Female elk do not have antlers.

Elk are very vocal. The male, in particular, is known for its bugle-like calls during breeding season.

Their habits are very similar to those of the white-tailed deer. Like the deer, they are crepuscular. Elk travel in herds of up to 25, generally with one male (bull) and a harem of females (cows).

In Ohio, they were important prey for bobcats, wolves and cougars.



The earliest relative of the North American elk came from Asia during the Pleistocene Age, two million years ago, and spread rapidly. There is evidence of elk living in Ohio since the late Ice Age period. Elk remains have been found in lake and stream deposits as well as caves. 1981, a nearly complete elk skeleton was found Cranberry Prairie in Mercer County. There was evidence of a shoulder wound made by a spear point, approximately 10,000 years ago. They were hunted by the early Paleoindian and Archaic cultures as well as all prehistoric cultures that followed.


Elk were common in Ohio where prairies and forests came together. This included the northwestern portion where the Great Black Swamp had once been and southwestern areas, like Adams County, where white cedar grew. However, they were found throughout the state where there was open woodland.

Elk were hunted by the Native Americans for their hide, meat, teeth and antlers.

When Europeans came to North America, they found elk from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and from Canada south to Florida and Mexico.


Early settlers encountered elk in the Ohio country. The Muskingum River comes from a word meaning "elk's eye," because of the numbers of elk that formerly fed on its banks.

Nineteenth Century

In 1882, A.W. Brayton reported, "When Circleville was first settled [1811] the carcasses, or rather skeletons, of 50 individuals of the family of elk lay scattered about the surface."

Elk were commonly seen in Ashtabula County until about 1832.

Because of over hunting and a decrease in habitat, the elk became extirpated from the eastern North America.

Elk had disappeared from Ohio by 1838.

Twentieth Century

The majority of elk are found today from Canada to New Mexico, through the eastern Rocky Mountains.

A herd of approximately 1,150 elk reside in Michigan. These are a result of reintroducing Rocky Mountain elk in 1918. They are currently managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

In the winter of 1997-98, 150 Rocky Mountain elk were relocated from Utah to Kentucky as part of a nine year reintroduction plan. In January 1999, they planned on releasing an additional 200 elk.

Currently there are no wild elk herds in Ohio. They are raised, privately, by some Ohioans.

See Also


  1. Hulbert, Archer B., and Schwarze, William N., eds. David Zeisberger's History of the North American Indians. Columbus, OH: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1910.