Elk Control

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General Elk Facts


The elk is a large, powerful animal with an adult weight averaging over 400 pounds. Pelage (hair coat) is light to dark reddish brown on the body, a darker brown on the neck and legs, and creamy on the large rump patch. Males bear large, impressive antlers with six or more tines branching from two heavy central beams.


The Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) is found in the Rocky Mountain states and in scattered locations in the Midwest and East. The current distribution of the Roosevelt elk (C. e. roosevelti) is the inland coastal areas of northern California, Oregon, Washington, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and Afognak Island, Alaska. The Tule elk (C. e. nannodes) is found only in California and the Manitoban elk (C. e. manitobensis) is found in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.


Although elk once roamed freely into lower elevation grasslands, they are now found primarily close to heavily forested areas that are dotted with natural or human-made (clear-cut) openings. Typically, elk use the openings to forage for food. Elk seek the shelter of dense stands of conifer and deciduous trees for protection from temperature extremes, predation, and harassment by humans. Elk usually spend their summers at higher, cooler elevations. In fall, they migrate along traditional corridors (2 to 80 miles [3 to 133 km]) long to lower elevations to escape weather extremes and snow depths that prohibit foraging in winter. Some herds are not migratory, spending the entire year within fairly welldefined and restricted areas.

Food Habits

Elk graze on grasses and forbs, and browse on shrubs, tree seedlings, and saplings. Diet is variable, depending on food availability.


Elk commonly impact agricultural resources by competing with domestic livestock for pasture and damaging cereal and hay crops, ornamental plants, orchards, and livestock fences. Elk also damage forest resources by feeding on seedlings and saplings of coniferous and deciduous trees. During winter, elk concentrate in areas where food is available, including pastures, winter wheat fields, and young conifer plantations. A survey conducted in 1989 indicated that elk caused damage to crops in seven states, mostly to haystacks and pastures.

Click to Enlarge
Picture of an elk grazing

Elk damage appears to be a local problem that usually is dealt with locally. Elk damage problems are increasing in property developed in traditional elk wintering ranges. This problem can be avoided by zoning regulations that prohibit development in such areas. Because the elk is a highly desired game animal, management efforts in the last few decades have concentrated on increasing the size of local elk herds. As elk numbers have gradually increased in many parts of their range, the incidence and intensity of damage to agriculture and forestry have also increased.

Damage Identification

Plants browsed by elk have a characteristic appearance. Vegetation is grasped between the lower incisors and the upper palate and ripped or torn, resulting in splintered and fragmented plant parts (Fig. 3). In contrast, rabbits and large rodents clip vegetation off at a sharp 45o angle (Fig. 4). Elk damage to conifer seedlings may appear as a thorough stripping of bark from the upper half of the growing tip or “lateral” (Fig. 5). This damage generally occurs weeks after planting, usually in early to midspring. Meadow mice gnaw or “girdle” rather than clip as larger rodents and rabbits do, or browse as elk and deer do. The appearance of damage to browsed plants is similar for elk, deer, and cattle, but their tracks and scats (droppings) are easily distinguished (Fig. 6). tent of forages. Elk dietary preferences often overlap those of domestic and other wild ungulates. Where both grasses and shrubs are available, elk may favor grasses. When snow reaches sufficient depth to cover grasses and shrubs, elk are forced to rely on conifer seedlings and saplings, and bark and twigs of deciduous trees, such as aspen. Wind-fallen branches and attached arboreal lichens are an important energy source in winter.

Damage Prevention and Control Methods

In some situations, only one technique for controlling elk damage is necessary. In many situations, however, the greatest reduction and prevention of future damage will be accomplished by application of more than one damage control technique.


Elk - Click to EnlargeFencing has provided relief from elk damage where plants cannot be protected individually, such as in hay and grain fields, large orchards, and pastures. Six-foot-high wovenwire fences, topped with two strands of smooth or barbed wire will prevent access, but the cost is high. Some states have cost-share programs wherein some or all of the cost of fencing materials may be borne by one or more agencies responsible for managing elk damage.

Recently, high-voltage (3,500- to 7,500- volt) electric fences have proven to be a relatively inexpensive and effective alternative to woven-wire fences. They feature 8 to 11 smooth strands of triple-galvanized, high-tensile steel wire supported by conventional fence post systems. Considerable expertise is required to construct these fences, but when built properly, they supply.

If native forages are chronically limited, damage to crops may persist through harvest. Much of the damage to orchards occurs in winter and late spring when the growing tips of young (1- to 5-year-old) trees are high in protein and highly digestible. Damage may continue through late summer at a reduced level. Conifers are often damaged after they are planted on clear-cut sites. Elk are drawn to conifers when other food supplies are limited and/or of low nutritive quality. Elk also are attracted during spring when conifers produce new growth that is especially palatable and highly digestible. Damage to haystacks occurs during winter when there is little food available for elk on winter ranges. Elk damage to pastures usually occurs during winter and during migration periods when elk move between summer and winter ranges. Elk usually damage areas that border standing timber because they have learned from their association with humans not to venture far out into large openings. They also prefer riparian zones and benches as opposed to steep slopes, and damage is usually distributed accordingly. Much of the damage caused by elk is in response to low availability of forage on winter range; thus crops on winter range or along migration routes are often damaged.

*The above information was taken from a University of Nebraska Web site with
express permission of Stephen Vatassel, wildlife damage project coordinator.

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