Rocky Mountain Elk from New Mexico Game and Fish
You must search long and hard for a wildlife species surpassing the magnificence of the Rocky Mountain Elk. Springtime velvet grows on the antlers of males, and is later shed to reveal 40 inches of branching tines. Adult bulls may weigh 750 pounds, the cows 500 pounds. In the fall rutting season, bulls bugle when establishing and defining their harems. The piercing High-pitched call, echoing down a mountain ridge, is a wonder to hear.
The elk is New Mexicos largest big game animal and lives in all suitable mountain habitats. Yet not long ago elk had vanished from the state completely, following their disappearance from the plains states to the east.
There were two subspecies of elk in New Mexico before the turn of the century: the Rocky Mountain (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) and the Merriams (Cervus elaphus merriami). Biologists had classified the Merriams elk, which lived in the southern mountains of New Mexico and Arizona, as a separate species. In recent years, however, the debate has been raised whether the Merriams elk might have been a geographical race of the Rocky Mountain elk, which lived in the northern mountains of the state and on up into Canada. This theory is generally accepted now. In any event, the Merriams elk is forever gone.
Elk were first protected by closing the summer to hunting, starting in 1880. As late as 1875, groups of 2,000 elk were still to be seen in the state. Elk were declared game and thus protected by law in 1903, but this did not come in time to save the species from extinction in New Mexico. As more settlers moved in from the East, elk were shot for food, and their habitats altered by ranching, timber and mining operations. Elk were completely gone from the state by 1909.
Soon after, however, attempts to reintroduce the elk began. In 1910 or 1911, the Bartlett Ranch (Vermejo Park) purchased 15 Rocky Mountain elk to be placed in a large fenced area, and in 1911 the state purchased 12 elk from Colorado and transplanted them into three different areas of the northern mountains.
Many other transplants into state, federal, and private lands had occurred by the time the Pittman-Robertson Act became effective in July of 1938. With this Act, federal funds for transplants were then available and New Mexico has since used this excise-tax money from sporting equipment sales to transplant more elk.
The first elk transplant using funds from this act was in 1954 in the Gila National Forest. The 16 animals came from Yellowstone National Park and the Chama Land and Cattle Company. From 1954 to 1967, the state transplanted 638 elk into New Mexico locations. Elk are now found in most mountainous regions of the state.
Elk are large; the bulls carry huge antlers and their meat is prized by hunters. Full antlers are grown by males at about three years of age, with the spike antlers appearing at one year. Antlers average 6 tines each and are 40 to 45 inches long, weighing up to 15 pounds. Elk are considered to have reached old age at eight to ten years, but have lived much longer in captivity.
Elk have two pairs of external scent glands - one slightly below the eye and one on the outside of the hind leg. The animals length is 80 to 100 inches from nose tip to tail tip, and the shoulder height is 55 to 60 inches.
Cow elk reach breeding age at 27 months, though six to seven years of age is their prime. Bulls begin to bugle and wallow in mud baths in late August. Cows are gathered into harems as the bulls become aggressive, fighting among themselves for territory and cows. The peak of breeding is usually the middle of September to the middle of October in New Mexico.
In late May and early June, calves are born, weighing 30 to 40 pounds. At first they are spotted in appearance, and are sometimes found in aspen or open meadows. In mid-August, calves lose their spots and acquire a tawny coat with a light rump patch. Calves may be susceptible to predators such as coyotes, mountain lions, and bears.
Elk need cover and good habitat to thrive. Much of what they eat is grass, and they typically graze in meadows in the early morning or evening, then spend the rest of the day in timber. This provides a measure of protection from predators, insects, and people. They are capable of astonishing speed in the forest.
With restoration of elk herds has come increased elk hunting. In 1960, for example, about 2,500 licenses were issued. In 1993, the figure was about 21,700.