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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© C.K. Lorenz

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Watch for Elk
When you’re out driving around this fall, keep your eyes peeled for Arizona’s largest ungulate. It won’t be hard. The average elk weighs in at 700 pounds, and the big daddies can go as high as 1,200.

By Kelly Kramer

Elk just might be the gigolos of the deer world. Consider this quote from the Arizona Game and Fish Department website: "Harems may number up to 30, depending on the vigor of the bull, but usually average 15 to 20."

During the rut, which typically occurs in early September, bulls will bugle to attract cows, and then defend their harems against less-popular males that attempt to poach the pretty ladies. It's an elk-style version of Ultimate Fighting Championship that includes antler sparring, plenty of posturing and a bunch of grunting and bellowing. The combatants are ranked as heavyweights — male elk can weigh in at a whopping 1,200 pounds, although most range between 600 and 800.

Chalk their size up to four-chambered stomachs and square meals of grass, weeds, shrubs and even trees, including aspens, piñon pines and junipers. That's why you'll find Arizona's Cervus canadensus population primarily in the White Mountains, along the Mogollon Rim and around the San Francisco Peaks, at elevations between 7,000 and 10,000 feet in the summer and 5,500 to 6,500 feet in the winter. Their carb-heavy diet provides plenty of fuel for long-distance runs, which come in handy if you're trying to avoid a frisky male elk in search of one more female for his harem.

The massive marathoners can reach speeds up to 40 mph, but they're also amazing vertical jumpers, capable of reaching heights between 8 and 10 feet. They're winners when it comes to swimming, too — even calves can swim nearly a mile at a time.

You'll normally start spotting baby elk between late May and early June. Calves weigh roughly 30 pounds at birth, and have white-spotted, russet-colored coats. Summer coats are a deep, reddish-brown color, while winter coats tend to be grayish-brown, with a yellowish-brown rump patch. Bull elk, of course, are known for their antlers, which, like all good things, come with age.

The antler cast takes place between January and March for adult bulls, and between March and May for adolescents. New growth begins immediately after the cast and takes between 90 and 150 days. That's why, according to AZGFD, it's possible to see yearlings with old spikes and old fogies with velvety soft antlers. Steer clear, unless you want to go toe-to-toe with a gigolo.

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