For Nova Scotians to see elk, second largest wild animal on our continent, the most common place until now has been documentaries on wildlife of North America's western mountains. Not any more. The Shubenacadie Wildlife Park has brought in a pair of these huge members of the deer family and plans another introduction this autumn.
Two cow elk arrived from Alberta this spring. A male will follow, likely in November, after the annual rut or mating season is over. Since male elk keep their antlers through th winter, he should still have his magnificent rack when he arrives.
Wild elk are most common in the slopes and valleys of western mountains. They migrate, usually in herds, spending summers on the high meadows and winters in wooded valleys.
Male elk can weight up to 600 kilograms. Their mating calls or bugling is very striking, and along with the call of the loon and howl of the wolf ranks as a definitive sound of the North American wilderness.
A bull elk bugles to attract mates and establish territory. Dominant males can have herds of more than 20 cows, and will both posture and fight other bulls to keep them.
Elk have a long history. They evolved on the sunken land that linked North America to Asia and when that was lost, spread east and west.
Originall, elk were found throughout most North American woodlands, but the Eastern elk was hunted to extinction by 1900. Today the biggest elk populations are on our Pacific mountain slopes and in Siberia.
Second largest only to the moose, the name of the animal has itself been a matter of some controversy. The word "elk" is actually the Eurasian name for what we call a moose. However, when Europeans first arrived on this continent, they picked up the Abanaki word "mus", evolving it to "moos", then "moose". When they encountered another huge woodland deer, they apparently thought it was the large animal found in northern Europe and called it "elk".
The better name is "wapiti", from the Cree word for the animal's whitish rump. In Asia, where elk means moose, wapiti is the common name for this animal.
Park staff are finding the two elk quite sociable.
"We often see them up close to the fence. Visitors to the park know that our red deer herd tend to stay down the far end of the pasture, well away from where people might come. The white tails are always up at the fence. We're finding that the elk are quite personable. They'll come right up to the fence and people are getting a good look at that white rump'"says assistant education coordinator Theresa Adams"
The elk enclosure is located between the white-tailed deer and the red deer.
Ray MacLeod is a freelance outdoors writer. He lives in Waverley.