Driving along Highway 42 near Riverton OR, Leonard and I saw a small herd of Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) cows grazing in a meadow. It was foggy and the elk looked almost ghostly in the gray, early morning light. Although there were no males with their magnificent antlers, the cows are also impressive creatures.
Roosevelt elk, named after President Teddy Roosevelt, are the largest of the four remaining elk subspecies in North America. Social animals, Roosevelt elk primarily live on the west slopes of the Cascade and Coastal Ranges from Vancouver Island to Northern California. They inhabit dense rain forests and meadows, often preferring a border area where meadow grasses provide food and the forest offers protection.
Also called Olympic elk, the Roosevelt elk is darker than the other subspecies of elk and the males have shorter, more massive antlers. Elk are fawn colored over their bodies, with the head and thickly maned neck a darker shade, ranging from chestnut to brown. The underparts and legs are dark brown or even black. A large patch on the rump surrounding and including the tail is whitish in young animals and becomes straw-colored with age. The true name for North American elk is wapiti, a Shawnee word meaning “white rump”. However, the European name, elk, is usually used. Males carry massive antlers.
As in these pictures, Roosevelt elk graze on grasses in the summer, supplemented by leaves and twigs of underbrush and both deciduous and coniferous trees. In deep snow elk will browse largely on the twigs and shoots of trees.
Elk have no incisor teeth in front on the upper jaw, but do have canines and broad crowned, sharp-edged molars. The lower jaw does have incisors in the front. As a ruminant or cud-chewing animal, elk have a compound stomach. Feeding in the early morning and at dusk, elk rapidly swallow large quantities of food without chewing. This unchewed food is stored in the paunch (rumen) where it is mixed with digestive juices. Later when the elk are able to rest, the food is returned to the mouth in the form of small pellets. At leisure, the elk mill these food pellets into a fine pulp that is then passed on to other parts of the stomach for digestion. After we left these cows probably moved to the nearby forest edge to digest their meal.
In later posts I will pass along other pictures and information about these large mammals. I always get so excited when we see majestic Roosevelt elk.