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Elk, Our Deer's Big Cousin, Used to Roam Illinois

In your lifetime, you’ve probably seen a white-tailed deer or two — or maybe even dozens — hanging out on the side of the road or in our preserves here in Will County. Did you know that we used to have another deer relative right in our backyard? Elk used to roam Illinois along with the bison.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Physical characteristics

Elk might look like white-tailed deer, with the same long legs, hooves, buff coloring, long faces, big eyes and antlers. But if you step next to one you’ll realize this is a different animal. Elk are massive.

By the time elk calves are 6 months old, they are already the size of an adult deer. A fully grown bull (male) generally weighs between 700 and 1,100 pounds, while cows (females) typically average between 500 and 600 pounds. In comparison, white-tailed deer typically weigh between 125 pounds and 300 pounds.

Measuring up to their shoulders, elk are about 4 feet to 5 feet tall, compared to only 2½ feet to 3½ feet tall for deer. Add on a head and antlers and a bull can tower over us at 9 feet tall! An average NBA basketball player is only 6.6 feet tall!

What’s in a name?

When Europeans started colonizing America, they came across elk for the first time. These animals resembled the red deer the settlers knew from back home, but they were so much bigger. Because of their size, Europeans called these animals “elk,” which is the word they used for their moose. It’s the word they still use today.


Words to know

Buff: A yellowish-beige color.

Colonize: To settle or appropriate a place and establish political control over it.

Sanctuary: A place of refuge or safety.


Have you ever seen a moose? They look a little like deer or elk, but they have flatter antlers and a wider nose. Turns out American elk are a type of deer, the largest deer species, in fact.

Around the 1800s another name for these animals started to be used: wapiti. It is based on the term waapiti, the Shawnee name for the animal. Waapa means white, referring to the animal’s white tail and rump. Today many people choose to call them wapiti to clear up this name confusion and honor them as an American animal with a Native name. This article will use both names.

Home on the range

At one point wapiti used to live all over what is now Canada, the United States and even parts of Mexico. Scientists estimate that there were about 10 million elk at one time. By early 1800s, elk were extirpated from Illinois. Extirpated means they can no longer be found here in the wild.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

They are made for most habitats, except deserts and tundra. (A tundra is a treeless plain in an arctic region.) They like woodlands and forested areas as long as the trees are not too close together. You can also find them in grasslands and mountains, even woody swamps.

Today you can see them mostly in western states, especially in wildlife sanctuaries like Yellowstone national park. Some eastern states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia have reintroduced wapiti in rural areas. Who knows, maybe one day they will be seen again in Illinois.


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