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Arizona Elk's Feeding,
Watering, Bedding and Traveling Habits

Source: Arizona Game and Fish
Elk Description:
Arizona Elk

Elk are the second largest member of the deer family (Cervidae) behind moose, the largest. Males in Arizona will weigh between 600 to over 1000 pounds (270-450 kg), while females weigh between 450 to 650 pounds (200-320 kg). They will stand up to 5 feet (1.5 m)at the shoulder. Males have large antlers consisting of a single beam angling upward and backward for up to 5 feet from the head, with up to 6 and occasionally 7 points or tines on each side of adult bulls. Females do not have antlers. Elk have short tails, only about 3 to 8 inches (7.5-20 mm) surrounded by a tan colored rumppatch. Their backs are brownish to tan above, somewhat reddish during the summer, and their underside is darker. Males especially appear to have thick necks with a dark brown mane on their throat region. The name "elk" leads to confusion. It comes from the German word "elch" which refers to the European moose. Shawnee Indians named elk, "wapiti" which means white rump. The red deer of Europe is the same species as the elk, but it is referred to as a "deer." Here, in North America we clearly distinguish between elk and moose, but it is confusing for European visitors.

Elk Distribution in Arizona
Arizona Elk Distribution
Arizona Elk DistributionElk Distribution in Arizona
Elk Habits

Their habitat varies according to location. They seem to prefer mountainous country with mixed open, grassy meadows, marshy meadows, river flats, and aspen parkland, as well as coniferous forests, brushy clearcuts, forest edges, and shrub steppe. Studies in Arizona, have shown that some populations live year-round in sagebrush desert, and that they used grass-shrub for feeding and tall shrub or pole timber for resting in spring; they fed in clearcuts and shrub fields and rested in pole timber in summer; and stayed in mesic (moderate moisture) pole timber in autumn.

There is considerable geographic and seasonal variation in what elk like to eat. However, this species is primarily a grazer, relying of grasses for most of the year, but they also consume forbs in summer, and may browse on willow and aspen where grasses are unavailable, especially during winter months. But always remember, to find the elk, first you must find their food.

They are active at night, but most active at dusk and dawn. diurnal feeding is more common in summer than in winter, but feeding periods are more prolonged in winter, and are concentrated in morning and evening. Individuals tend to bed down in meadows in the afternoon and again after midnight to chew their cud. In Arizona, and throughout northern Arizona, herds move to lower elevations in winter to feed. Elk tend to avoid roads in all seasons. Individuals exhibit a high fidelity to their home range, but may abandon it if they are excessively disturbed. The species is gregarious, though some bulls may be solitary. Males tend to spend much of winter spring and summer in separate male groups or solitarily from female and young herds. Females form herds which includes young of the year and even some yearling bulls. Males shed antlers in March and April. They are preyed on by mountain lions and wolves where these predators are present. Grizzly bears prey heavily on calves in the spring in the first month of the lives of calves. After about a month old, calves can usually outrun grizzly bears. Coyotes occasionally will also take calves, and on rare occasions golden eagles have been known to kill a calf. Elk are heavily hunted and many populations are controlled by hunting as a recent Arizona study points to hunter access and intensity, not habitat parameters, as a major factor in population control.

In September and October, during the rut, mature bulls establish harems of up to 30 females. The bulls "bugle" which actually starts with sort of a bellow, then changes to a whistle and ends with a series of grunts. Bugling is common during the rut as the bulls are advertising their presence to their harem, and to other bulls as a challenge. There is some fighting among mature bulls during the rut , and a lot of wallowing, pawing of the ground and conducting much behavior which appears to be "marking" their "territory", although rutting bulls are not thought of as territorial. Older, dominant males do most of mating, and younger males, although capable, rarely breed with adult females. Females breed at 2 years. Most births (late spring) are single, but twins are common. Calves are about 28 pounds at birth. Females have their young away from the herd, and commonly plant their young, spotted calf, in thick cover while they feed. After a week or two the cow and her calf will join with other females and their calves. Elk calves grow rapidly and can outrun most predators by 3 to 4 weeks of age. Gestation lasts 249 to 262 days. An Arizona study reported that winter herd composition included 16% calves.

Elk Hunt History

As with many game species in Arizona, elk hunting has had its ups and downs. With native elk having been extirpated, the closed season imposed by the territorial legislature in 1893 was too little too late. The releases of Yellowstone elk between 1913 and 1929 were successful, however, and in 1935 the population was deemed sufficient to support a limited, 266-permit bull hunt. One hundred and forty-five elk were harvested, and hunts were continued every year through 1943.

Because of World War II, no season was conducted in 1944 or 1945, but a limited hunt, which included the issuance of the first cow elk permits, was again authorized in 1946. Elk hunting opportunities expanded almost annually as biologists and ranchers feared that Arizona's elk population might now "rise out of control." These concerns culminated in 1953 when 6,288 permits were issued and 1,558 elk were taken-more than 1,000 of which were cows. Because of concerns about the "slaughter," elk permits were greatly curtailed in 1954 and remained below 5,000 until 1965, when more than 6,000 permits were again authorized. By 1967, elk permit numbers were exceeding 7,000, and the annual harvest exceeded 1,500 elk. Once again, elk permits were gradually lowered, although new hunts, including archery hunts, were being initiated.

By the mid-1980s, elk, and elk permit numbers, were again headed upward. This trend culminated in 1994, when nearly 11,000 elk were harvested-a number unimaginable just 20 years earlier. Since then, elk numbers and harvests have remained at a high level with more than 9,800 elk taken in 1999. This situation is expected to continue for the foreseeable future as wildlife managers and land managers continue to be concerned about habitat quality and elk-livestock competition.

Elk Behavior

The cow will separate from the herd and seek out dense cover for a nursery. The female will drive off last year's calf only weeks before parturition. Within hours, the newborn calf can move and is led from the birthing spot to a safer place. After a week, the female will band with other females and after two to three weeks the calves, now able to run, will join the group creating herds numbering in the hundreds. By September, the calves have shed their juvenile spotted coats. The life span of elk is 14 to 16 years for males and 15 to 17 for females, though in 1937 a tagged elk in Arizona was 25 when it was harvested.

Antler development is a function of age. The antler cast occurs in January to March for adult bulls and from March through May for sub-adults. New growth occurs shortly after the cast. The growing period ranges from 90 days for yearlings to 150 days for adult bulls. Therefore it's possible to see yearlings with old spikes at the same time as bulls with a foot of velvet.

By early August, antler growth is complete. The velvet dries up and the antlers harden. The velvet is stripped off in a matter of hours and the elk polishes its antlers against trees. By early September, the bull is ready for the rut. Bugling and harem formation occurs. Harems may number up to 30, depending on the vigor of the bull, but usually average 15 to 20.

A large bull can weigh up to 1,200 lbs. but usually will range from 600 to 800 lbs. Mature cows will range from 450 to 600 lbs. live weight. Elk evolved as distance runners. Elk can approach 40 mph for short periods and nearly 30 mph for longer periods. They are strong swimmers, even calves can swim over a mile. Elk can jump vertically 8 to 10 feet.

Elk Resources:
Elk Hunting Guides:
Arizona Wildlife Outfitters
Elk Habitat Summary:
  • Elk Breeding Period: September-October
  • Elk Calves Appear: June
  • Average Number of Young: 1
  • Elk Distribution: 6K-10K ft, Northern Arizona
  • Elk Habitat: Fir-aspen & pine-juniper forests
  • Elk Food Preference: Weeds, grasses, sedges, shrubs, willow and trees in season
  • Elk Range: 20-30 sq. miles
  • Elk Live Weight: M-900lbs.; F-500lbs.
  • Elk Predators: Mountain Lion and Coyote

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