Elk: A Montana Treasure
Montana’s playground is not for the faint of heart. The rugged and vast landscapes, paired with the sometimes brutal fluctuations in temperature in a matter of minutes, keep you on your toes. Though she holds breathtaking scenes, the Treasure State demands respect, and after that, admirers can expect to feel like they’ve stumbled upon some of life’s best-kept secrets that no amount of photographs can fully capture.
Home to one of the largest elk herds in North America, Montana is naturally synonymous with the American hunting tradition of these majestic wild animals. In 2022, the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) counted more than 141,000 elk, so it’s no wonder visitors from all over the world flock for an opportunity to see them or the chance to hunt one. There are several subspecies, but the Rocky Mountain Elk found throughout the state has the largest antlers. The Roosevelt’s Elk found in the Coastal Pacific Northwest has the largest body size.
Montana is the place to be, with ideal American Elk or Cervus canadensis habitats. Elk have significantly impacted the culture and history as their meat was nutrient rich and hides warm for the native tribes depending on them for survival. The tradition of hunting elk has deep roots and continues to draw recreationists, impacting the economy by generating millions of dollars in revenue annually. Local businesses, outfitters, and guides flourish alongside the state’s tourism industry. If you’ve ever been, you can attest that experiencing Montana in the flesh and witnessing the wapiti (white-rumped deer as named by the Shawnee and Cree Tribes) raise the rack of antlers that can weigh up to 40 lbs and over 5 feet wide is to be in the presence of greatness. The smell of fall is in the air, with the dampness of the leaves lingering under the smoke of campfires. The air is crisp, the soil damp and no match for the spikes a bull elk uses to scrape grass and vegetation, only to fling through the air like weightless weeds.
The Big Sky equals big antlers. These impressive antlers are shed every spring and grow back during the summer. Elk antlers can grow up to an inch a day in the summer when the sunlight impacts testosterone levels, making antlers the fastest-growing bone in the world! They then harden to solid bone by September as they enter the mating season known as the rut. The rut happens during September and October when dominant bulls, usually with the largest antlers, protect a group of cows and calves. The bull is devoted to chasing off threatening smaller bulls and bringing back any runaway cows to the harem. Bulls can lose up to 20% of their body weight as a result. Their size of 700-1100 lbs and sharp bronze tines aren’t the only impressive features of bull elk. A bull elk’s unmistakable, spine-tingling bugle causes hunters and wildlife viewers to anticipate the domineering size of what’s producing it. As part of the mating ritual, bull elk bugle to assert their dominance and challenge another bull to sparring of clashing horns.
In Search of the Wapiti
Montana’s forest-covered mountains, wide-open mountain meadows, and sprawling grasslands give elk shelter and forage opportunities. The best time to catch elk searching for grass, leaves, twigs, and shrubs is in the early morning or late in the evening. They are more active when it is cooler and in higher elevations for the same reason during the warmer months. As the cold sets in, they move down lower, seeking warmth and cover from the tree-lined ridges to bed down.
The US once supported as many as 10 million elk, but as settlers moved farther west in the early 1900s, they cleared much of the land for farming and development. Elk numbers plummeted to nearly 100,000 in the US at the turn of the century. Conservation efforts turned those numbers around as habitats have been restored and elk numbers monitored. There are about 1,000,000 elk across the country today. Hunting permits limit the number of elk harvested, and the Montana FWP has monitored the numbers in the state since 1978. Montana’s state sees the greatest elk population in the western and central parts. With programs to help overharvesting and keep an eye out for negative impacts from a population that is getting too big, elk numbers are thriving, and hunting in Montana is an experience many desire—looking to own your hunting property? Contact us to learn about properties that offer world-class elk hunting!