The British, and other Europeans, called this animal the elk because it was similar to some of the deer-like animals they had back home.
But the Shawnee called it the Wapiti. If you stick to that name, you won’t confuse it with anything else.
At one time, the Wapiti ranged over most of this continent, from northern Canada to Mexico and from New England to the Rockies and California. An estimate of the original population is about three million.
This went down to a very dangerous level in the early 1800s, when some rather serious protection was started.
Nowadays, a reasonable estimate is about 75,000 in Canada and maybe three times that in the United States.
The elk is a big animal. Among its deer-like relatives, only the moose is bigger. A bull will average 600-800 pounds, and a cow 300-400.
The bull is an impressive animal, too. He may stand five feet at the shoulder and have antlers up to six feet long. He can run at 40 miles an hour, and leap over a seven-foot fence.
Much bigger than our common deer, he has a similar look about him. He has a brown coat, which tends to be fairly light in the winter and darker in the summer. Elk also have quite dark hair on the neck and shoulders—a mane.
A large area of the rump is coloured sort of buffy. From a distance it looks almost white.
Elk have only a little bit of a tail.
The antlers of the male are remarkable, indeed. The main branch goes back, along its withers. Other branches face forward and outward (they may spread out to nearly four or five feet).
The Wapiti feed on the same things as most grazing animals—grass, weeds, new growth on bushes, and so on. It also can handle dry leaves and grass, and will dig well down into the snow to get them.
In the winter, though, it often has to rely on the small twigs and buds of trees and bushes.
This type of diet is not really very nourishing, and lots of elk get quite thin in the winter.
In mountainous areas, the elk migrate up and down—up in the summer and down to the valleys in the winter (most grazing animals do this).
On flatter land, they look for beaver meadows, recently burned or cut-over land in the summer, and deep woods in the winter.
Close to civilization, they have no hesitation in treating farmers’ fields and crops as their own. Animals of this size can do a great deal of crop damage in a very short time.
When they get too tame, they can be a great nuisance—just look for some of the TV pictures from Banff.
In the early days of the white man in Ontario, Wapiti were pretty much everywhere in the province. Natives used them for food, clothing, tents, and so on; the white man mainly for food.
But along with civilization came the elimination of the elk. They became scarcer and scarcer until they were all gone.
The last Wapiti in Ontario was spotted near North Bay in 1893.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a series.