Elk, also known as wapiti or red deer, enjoy large populations in North America, primarily in western parts of the United States and Canada. These large relatives of deer are also found in smaller populations in other parts of the world, in protected native groups or introduced populations. Their preference for open woodlands and a range of elevations make many states habitable for elk, though their current range is much smaller than their historical range.
Elk live in wooded, primarily mountainous, habitats in the United States contributing to their herbivorous diet of tree shoots, shrubs and grasses. They prefer open wooded areas and pastures over denser forests. Elk migrate between elevations depending on the season. In summer, they inhabit mountains and alpine meadows, then in winter, they typically migrate to the valleys. An elk’s home range is approximately 600 square miles.
Elk in the United States
The western U.S. and Rocky Mountain regions make up the bulk of the elk range in the United States, though some populations exist farther east. Significant populations are found in Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, such as in Yellowstone National Park and the Wyoming National Elk Refuge. Smaller pockets of elk can be found in various Midwestern states, such as South Dakota and Minnesota, and small populations have been established in eastern states including Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Historical U.S. Range
The United States range of elk was once far larger than today’s, with populations found in nearly all of the contiguous 48 states except along the east coast, southern extremes and Pacific northwest. Overhunting and habitat destruction reduced the elk population and range considerably, driving the animal west and to more remote and patchy areas. Despite the population loss and migration, elk are still found in significant -- often dense -- numbers within their current range due in part to a lack of predators.
Elk Around the World
The North American range of elk goes beyond the United States into Canada, especially in the Canadian Rockies plus small pockets in eastern Ontario. The species is also found in many European and Asian countries -- such as the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, India and China -- plus small regions of northern Africa. In addition to its dozens of native and introduced northern hemisphere countries, the elk has been introduced to several southern hemisphere locations: Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile.
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web - Cervus Elaphus
- International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List: Cervus Elaphus
- National Geographic: Elk
- Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation: Where We Conserve
- International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List: Species Range - Cervus Elaphus
E. Anne Hunter has more than a decade of experience in education, with a focus on visual design and instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in education. Hunter has contributed to several professional publications, covering education, design, music and fitness, among other topics.