During the days of the Wild West, one large mammal roamed throughout most of the country, providing meat and other necessities for your characters. That mammal was the elk, also called the wapiti, a Native American word meaning “white rump.”
The scientific name of the elk is Cervus canadensis, and it is found in the deer family. It is one of the largest deer in the country, second only to the moose. Males, or bulls, grow antlers that may reach up to four feet above their head, so that the animal towers nearly nine feet tall. Females (cows) stand around four feet tall at the shoulder and around seven feet from nose to tail. They weigh on average around 500 pounds. Bulls weigh in at around 700 pounds and are around eight feet long.
A group of elk is called a gang, and elk stay in single-sex groups for most of the year. Females form large herds of up to fifty individuals. During mating season, called the rut (from August to early Winter), mature bulls will join the herd and try to control a harem of cows. Rival bulls challenge their opponents by bellowing or bugling, and by striding back and forth parallel to one another to show off their antlers and bulging muscles. If neither bull backs down, they wrestle with their antlers, which sometimes causes serious injuries.
A bull’s bugle is a loud, distinctive scream most commonly heard early or late in the day, and once heard, is instantly identifiable. Here is a link to a sound file of an elk’s bugle.
Bulls also grow antlers during the spring and shed them each Winter. Large antlers can weigh up to forty pounds. They are made of bone and can grow nearly an inch a day until fully developed. During the growth period, the antlers are covered with a soft layer of skin called velvet, which is shed in strips during the summer. Bulls remain mostly solitary while they have antlers, but form bachelor groups once they shed them, with one or more scouts to watch for predators.
Elk are ruminants, which means they have a four-chambered stomach and chew cud. They are primarily grazers which feed on grasses, but they will browse on leaves and twigs when that is not available. Elk feed most commonly in the mornings and evenings and are especially fond of aspen sprouts, creating a decline in aspen groves in some areas.
Like many deer species, elk migrate into higher altitudes in the Spring, following the retreating snows, and back to the lower altitudes in the Fall. During Winter, they look for wooded areas and sheltered valleys for protection from the wind and availability of tree bark to eat.
Wolf packs and the solitary cougar are the most common predators of the elk, though brown and black bears have been known to take down an elk. Coyote packs mostly prey on calves, though they sometimes take down a winter- or disease-weakened adult. Elk can live around 10-13 years in the wild if they avoid predators.
Your characters would probably be familiar with the elk as a source of food and hide. Native Americans utilized the elk as much or more than the bison. At birth, Lakota boys were given an elk’s tooth to promote long life (since that is usually the last part of an elk to decay). Hides were used as tepee coverings, blankets, clothing and footwear. Antlers were used in artwork, furniture and various utensils.