Elk in a snowy meadow near Lake Louise in Alberta
Elk in a snowy meadow near Lake Louise in Alberta
One afternoon during our stay in Banff National Park, Alberta, Bob and I decided to take a drive from Lake Louise along the Bow Valley Parkway, a quieter highway than the Trans Canada, only two-lane versus four. We were in hopes of spotting some wildlife and were on the lookout for elk in particular. Seeing another vehicle pulled to the side of the road, we slowed to have a look. At first, we didn’t notice the Elk laying in the snow but rather thought the tourists were admiring yet another beautiful mountain peak.
Along the Bow Valley Parkway, one stunning mountain peak rises up to the sky in quick succession after another. Each one has its own unique beauty and demands admiration, so it is wonderful that the lack of traffic on that scenic route allows for ample opportunities to pull over. When I snapped this photo, I completely overlooked the two elk at rest in the frosty meadow.
When we became aware of the two animals, Bob and I couldn’t believe our luck. We knew them to be two males as only they have antlers, and one of them seemed younger than the other judging by the different sizes of their antlers. The antlers are shed each March, so this pair would be losing theirs soon, but they start growing anew in the spring, in May, so they are ready for show and demonstrations of prowess during breeding season in late summer.
The bone making up the antlers grows quickly, 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) per day. Although we were impressed with the racks on these two elk, they were relatively small. The antlers of some bull elk grow as large as 1.2 metres (4 ft) long and can weigh 22 kilograms (48 lb). A bull, itself, can weigh as much as 180-450 kilograms (400-1000 lb).
When Bob and I quietly exited our car, it seemed that the elk were not inclined to move away, and we could see where other people had made trails across the meadow for a closer look. We cautiously trudged through the deep snow towards the recumbent bull, using the edge of the forest as cover. Wolf tracks crisscrossed the snow, and we even saw some fresh scat.
In Banff National Park, several species of deer can be found…caribou, mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose and elk. Elk are much larger than their other relatives except for the moose. It was difficult for Bob and me to get a good gauge of the size of these elk because, at first, they did not budge from their resting position. Elk gather into herds during the winter months with each group being gender specific, so it was no surprise that these two bulls were not accompanied by any females.
Sometimes…well actually most of the time…objects viewed through the lens of my camera seem larger than they are in actuality. Even though viewing these elk from afar, I was quite aware of every movement they made, my line of retreat if the situation should change, and of Bob’s whereabouts. I also kept an eye on the distant line of trees in case any other elk should show up. If an elk becomes agitated or threatened, it is apt to hold its head high, lay its ears back and flare its nostrils. Since neither elk was demonstrating that behaviour, Bob and I felt relatively safe even given our proximity.
Elk come by their name owing to early European explorers who thought that the animals resembled moose. In Europe, moose are known as elk so that is what they called the newly discovered wapiti. The more accurate name for this species of animal is Wapiti, which has its roots in the Shawnee and Cree language where waapiti means “white rump”. All elk can be recognized by their small, well-defined rump patches and short tails.
Elk habitat includes forest and edge-of-forest surroundings where they can feed on grasses, plants, leaves and bark. They migrate in the spring and fall between higher and lower elevations. Winter finds them in sheltered valleys and wooded areas of lower elevations because they provide the best protection from the elements and a steady supply of tree bark to eat. As the snow retreats in the springtime, the elk move further up slope for the summer months.
As Bob and I inched further from the roadway towards the elk, all of a sudden, the larger of the two became active. I was thrilled when it got to its feet and began pawing the snow in search of some grass to browse on. The lower valley pasture where we found them would provide a good source of grass beneath the snow as well as shrubs that stick up through the snow cover.
Like a lot of animals, they feed primarily in the mornings and evenings. In between feedings, they find a quiet, sheltered spot to rest and digest their food. Because they are ruminants like cows and a number of other mammals, in order to gain the maximum nutrients from the vegetable matter they ingest, the plant material is regurgitated as fermented cud from a specialized stomach and chewed again. Chewing the cud further breaks down the plant material, and in the process, digestion is stimulated. The whole process is called rumination.
It was so interesting watching the elk as it foraged for food. It gave us a chance to admire the sheer stature of the animal even though a low ridge of snow hid the lower sections of its legs from view. Together with the antlers, which can reach 4 feet (1.2 m) above its head, an elk can be a staggering 9 feet (2.7 m) tall. All the while, the second elk lay calmly in the snow taking in its surroundings.
It is a wonder that the elk didn’t succumb to the cold there on the frozen surface, but their coat of hair grows much thicker over the course of the autumn months so it does a good job of insulating the animals when the cold and wintry weather arrives. Also protecting them from the elements is a thick mane of long hair around the necks extending down to their chests. The females and calves also grow these shaggy manes to help them endure the frigid winters.
When Banff National Park was created in 1885, only a few elk were seen in the Bow Valley. By 1906, numbers of elk were so low they seemed to have disappeared. But ten years later, elk populations were up naturally, as well as with additional help from the introduction of 235 elk from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1918-20. Today, elk are the most numerous large animal with close to 3200 found in the park; over 900 of them live in the lower Bow Valley close to the town of Banff.
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