Elk are massive and unforgettable creatures known for their beautiful antlers and iconic bugling during mating season. Curious hunters and wildlife lovers who spend time around these amazing creatures inevitably ask, “Just how much does an elk weigh?”
Location is the key to answering that question. Even though body size can range widely within an elk herd, there are general weight guidelines based on the subspecies you’re scoping and what part of the country you’re in.
This article will only discuss subspecies in the United States. So if you’re looking at wapiti (elk) classified as Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt, or Tule, we’ve got the info you want. And we’ll also cover the environmental factors that can affect an elk’s size.
Different Subspecies Of Elk
When you imagine a wapiti bugling, it’s fairly common to picture a big Rocky Mountain bull elk. This subspecies is widespread and memorable, but they’re only one of several subspecies you’ll find in North America.
Rocky Mountain elk aren’t the biggest elk out there. That title goes to the Roosevelt elk, commonly found in the Pacific Northwest. And, the smallest of the bunch? Those would be Tule elk, a rare subspecies found in California.
Let’s start with the average weight of elk by subspecies and where they’re most commonly found. Remember, these are averages; if you’re lucky, you may encounter much larger specimens. Nonetheless, these guidelines will give you a decent idea of the most common sightings.
Rocky Mountain Elk : Cervus canadensis nelsoni
Where To Find Them: You can find herds of Rocky Mountain elk all over the United States, thanks to reintroduction efforts over the decades. But the most significant concentrations are in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Eastern Washington, and Oregon.
- Average Weight for a Bull: 600-1,000 lb
- Average Weight for a Spike or Cow: 450-600 lb
Given the domain name of this website, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m obsessed with elk. I’ve hunted Rocky Mountain elk since the age of 12. So, when I visualize iconic elk, I see a big bugling Rocky Mountain elk turning his antlers my way.
The Rocky Mountain elk subspecies typically have the largest antlers and are by far the most populous in North America — at least 300,000 animals. But they’re a tad smaller on average than the next elk we’ll look at.
Roosevelt Elk: Cervus canadensis roosevelti
Where to find them: The eastern portions of Oregon and Washington, plus small regions in northern California.
- Average Weight for a Bull: 700 to 1,000 lb
- Average Weight for a Spike or Cow: 575 – 625 lb
Roosevelt elk are found primarily in the western portions of Washington and Oregon. These handsome beasts graze on the lusher vegetation of the Pacific Northwest, which is one reason why they’re larger than other subspecies.
Roosevelt elk are a smidge taller than Rocky Mountain elk, and their bigger bodies boost their average weight. They have impressively large antlers, even though those are smaller in proportion when compared to Rocky Mountain elk.
Tule Elk: Cervus nannodes
Where To Find Them: In small areas throughout Central and Northern California
- Average Weight for a Bull: 550-600 lb
- Average Weight for a Spike or Cow: 300-350 lb
Tule elk were once abundant, but now only small herds survive in the wet grasslands of California. Habitat loss and overhunting are primarily responsible for their dwindling numbers.
Tule elk are the smallest of all the elk subspecies in the US. Even the largest Tule bulls rarely tip the scales over 700 pounds. But despite being the smallest wapiti, their antlers sometimes grow to incredible lengths, making them a highly sought-after trophies.
Environmental Factors that Determine the Size of Elk
The average weights of the three subspecies are also influenced by a slew of environmental factors. Here are a few worth noting:
Diet And Weather
The size of an elk can be significantly affected by its diet. Elk are herbivores and eat sizable amounts of vegetation ranging from grasses, sedges, leaves, and bark. In dry years, those resources can shrink significantly.
Droughts reduce the amount of vegetation elk can eat, while the bounty of wet spells allows elk to gorge and grow larger. As with humans, the more calories you consume, the bigger you grow.
Put a creature in a small cage, and it’ll only grow as large as its habitat allows. For example, aquariums seldom have the largest specimens of sharks; the smaller habitat limits their growth potential. The same logic also applies to elk.
Elk require a large area to roam and forage, so when a habitat shrinks, so does the average size and weight of its elk. As humans expand and eliminate previously wild areas, elk habitats fragment and deteriorate, making food harder to find.
Smaller food resources produce smaller and fewer elk, so hunters have a vested interest in maintaining a healthy habitat. Hunters fund a big chunk of conservation programs, but alas, slowing human sprawl and habitat destruction is a massive challenge.
Elk are prey animals, so predators play a prominent role in herd size and average weight. It might seem counter-intuitive, but the more predators in an elk habitat, the larger the average weight of the surviving elk. But this makes sense — when the smaller, weaker, and sicker animals are culled, there’s less competition for food.
Of course, over-predation is always a concern, regardless of whether it’s caused by humans or natural wild predators. But, again, hunters are much more attuned to such issues. Along with paying hunting-related excise taxes, they also help balance the wild predator populations.
Like all animals, elk inherit their genetic information from their parents, which determines many aspects of their physiology, including body weight. Specific genes will determine an elk’s tendency to store or burn fat, as well as their appetite and metabolism rate.
In other words, some elk have a greater tendency to pack on fat reserves, and so are destined to have higher body weights. When food resources get scarce, those elk may have better survival rates.
Final Thoughts: How Much Does an Elk Weigh?
Wapiti are magnificent creatures with different average body weights, depending on their subspecies and location. Genetics determines how big individual elk can grow. Still, fat reserves are also influenced by such external environmental factors as access to forage, water, and habitat.
We’ve looked at the US’s typical weight ranges for elk — the Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt, and Tule elk subspecies. Your chances of spotting any of these will often depend on predator levels, seasonal weather events, and the overall health of their habitat. Body weight is a reflection of these factors.
I love the rich flavor of elk meat. It’s an excellent source of lean protein. You owe it to yourself to try it at least once, and our friends at The Honest Bison can help you with that. They can deliver fresh elk meat to your door, so savor its delicious taste while imagining the size and weight of the massive noble creature on the end of your fork.
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Last Updated on August 1, 2023