The main course for wolves

Elk are Yellowstone’s most abundant ungulate, with 10,000 to 20,000 roaming in large and small herds throughout the park. This creates a paradise for wolves and a key reason of why Yellowstone was chosen for wolf reintroduction. Elk comprise about 90% of winter wolf kills and are also an important food source for bears, mountain lions, and at least 12 scavenger species, including eagles, ravens, foxes, and coyotes.

In real life, a wolf pack is only successful about 20% of the time when hunting elk. A lone wolf has about a 3% chance of killing an adult elk.

Autumn in Yellowstone is ungulate mating season (rut). Bull elk spend the summer eating and growing antlers in preparation for a chance to pass on their genes. The strongest bull elk control access to harems of about six cows with their calves. During the rut, dominant bulls have to work around the clock keeping their harems together and away from other bulls, bugling and driving off the competition. Would be usurpers test and challenge the dominant bull hoping to defeat him and take his place.

Bulls of similar strength battle, locking antlers and pushing vigorously to establish dominance. Sometimes they are injured fighting but bulls rarely die in the rut. The loser gives up and the winner goes back to patrolling his harem as long as he is able.

After the rut, the bulls gather together in small male groups for winter, spring and summer. The female groups congregate in larger herds for the winter, led by experienced matriarchs. These herds move to lower elevations in search of winter forage.

Elk cows give birth to single calves in May to late June. Newborn ungulates rely on staying hidden until they can keep up with their mothers and join the herd. Many calves are eaten by wolves, coyotes, black and grizzly bears, cougars, and golden eagles.

Quick Facts

Elk (Cervus canadensis)

Elk or wapiti are one of the largest deer in the world. Not to be confused with the even larger moose (Alces alces), which is called an "elk" in Europe. Elk live in herds which gives them protection in the meadows and open forests. Male elk have large antlers which are shed each year.

  • SIZE: 227-318 kg (500-700 lbs)

  • DIET: Herbivores (eat plants): grasses, sedges, other herbs, and shrubs.

  • TOP SPEED: 72 kph (45 mph) and can run 40 kph (25 mph) for extended periods

Elk in WolfQuest

Elk are Yellowstone wolves' main meal source and a single kill can easily feed your whole pack.

Elk calves and cows are wolves’ preferred prey. Elk calves are easiest to kill - if you can get them away from their protective mothers. Older elk calves also defend with hooves.

Bull elk are the strongest and are hard to kill. Spikes (young bulls) are somewhat easier to kill than older bulls but they are still dangerous.

Elk carcasses are scattered throughout the game and provide food for wolves and other scavengers.

Main elk defenses are fleeing and then using hooves or antlers (when available).

You may hear male elk bugling and see them sparring especially during the autumn rut.