Earth Notes: Arizona’s Elk

Oct 3, 2012

Early on fall mornings, a piercing screech echoes across meadows in northern Arizona. It’s the frenzied bugle of a big bull elk in rut, trying to lure a harem of cows to breed and continue his line.

The elk that live in the state today are descended from transplants from Yellowstone National Park. They followed the native Merriam’s elk that was gone by the early twentieth century.

The original Merriam’s elk were known mostly from the White Mountains in eastern Arizona and as far west as Winslow. Forest rangers and hunters reported large bands of them, especially at the head of the Black River. One passed close by Dr. E.W. Nelson’s camp on an October night in 1884, “giving a hoarse bellow every half-mile or so.”

By the early 1900s unregulated hunting had taken a toll, and all the elk were extinguished. Only three specimens are known to exist in collections. Genetic studies on those specimens proved inconclusive about whether Merriam’s was a distinct subspecies.

But Arizonans wanted elk back in their state. So they turned to the Yellowstone herd, the source then for reintroductions all over the country. In 1913, about eighty-five elk were shipped to Winslow and released on the Mogollon Rim south of town.

From that small number, elk went forth and multiplied. Now the state’s herd is estimated at about 35,000, ranging across the Mogollon Rim to Grand Canyon.  And we still get the thrill of that rite of autumn: the primal sound of elk bugling.

To what a video from Arizona Game and Fish, click here.