Roosevelt elk: icons of the Pacific Northwest’s coastal rainforests
You may be familiar with the cuddly teddy bear named after Theodore Roosevelt, but the 26th president’s name was also passed along to the mighty elk of Western Washington.
Roosevelt elk are one of two subspecies native to Washington, the other being Rocky Mountain elk. Interstate 5 divides the two, with the former generally found on the west side and the latter typically found on the east. Some herds, like those near Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, are a mix of both due to reintroduction efforts in the early 20th century that brought Rocky Mountain elk into Roosevelt elk range.
“The closer to the Olympic Peninsula you get, the elk have more pure Roosevelt genetics,” said Kyle Garrison, ungulate (hoofed animal) section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Roosevelt elk are the largest elk subspecies in North America; males, called bulls, can weigh 700 to 1,200 pounds. They tend to be slightly darker than Rocky Mountain elk, often with shorter, thicker antlers. They form smaller herds and don’t have the large seasonal migrations that Rocky Mountain elk do.
Roosevelt elk prefer temperate rainforests and thrive in places with meadows, timber harvests, or other openings where sunlight hits the forest floor and helps to grow vegetation. They also rely on older forests with large trees for shelter during severe rain and extreme cold or heat.
As part of WDFW’s forest health efforts and collaboration with other public and private land managers such as the U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Department of Natural Resources, WDFW supports protecting older “late successional” forests, thinning or harvesting some forest areas, or conducting prescribed burns to improve habitat for elk and other wildlife.
WDFW also regulates hunting, conducts surveys to count elk, and places radio collars on some animals to monitor them. Partners from state and federal agencies as well as tribal governments all play a role in these conservation and management efforts. For more information on tribal hunting, please refer to this webpage.
“Elk are important economically; they’re important for recreational pursuit; they’re important for a lot of families that want to put food in the freezer and on their tables; and certainly important to indigenous peoples for subsistence and cultural reasons,” Garrison said.
Elk are hardy animals with generally stable populations, though treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD) can take its toll. The best available science indicates that bacteria, notably those in the genus Treponema, infect elk and spread through moist soils. TAHD likely emerged in elk in southwest Washington in the early 2000s.
WDFW is working with researchers including Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine Elk Hoof Disease Research team to better understand the disease and strategize to manage it. The Department also incentivizes hunters to target afflicted animals. Hoof disease is not transmissible to people, and the meat from afflicted animals is safe to eat.
Hunting and wildlife viewing
Hunters may spend an entire season in the woods of the Olympic Peninsula or Willapa Hills trying to harvest a Roosevelt elk. Known as one of the most difficult animals to hunt, at least on publicly accessible lands, patience, persistence, and tolerance for bad weather are a must for prospective Roosevelt elk hunters.
Despite their size they are elusive, known for avoiding hunters by moving frequently or concentrating on inaccessible private lands or thick timber where they can find shelter.
“For a lot of people, they are the bucket list animal,” Garrison said. “When you’re hunting elk in Western Washington, you’re usually hunting them in steep places when it’s raining and there’s super thick vegetation. These animals are tough. They’re difficult to pursue. For a lot of people, they’re the ultimate pursuit and challenge in terms of big game.”
Roosevelt elk may be spotted during the day and throughout the year, but the best viewing times are an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. Fall is mating season — called the rut — and a great time to see bulls as they bugle (call) and compete for females, called cows. Peak season for the rut is mid-September to mid-October, though actual timing can vary.
Outside of the rut, male Roosevelt elk form bachelor groups and move to higher elevations, into the alpine and subalpine zones, for better foraging opportunities. This is especially true over the summer, but may also occur post-rut when bulls are looking to avoid predators and regain their energy before winter.
Early to mid-summer is calving season.
“It’s always a treat to see those young elk running around, not sure what to do with their legs, but we encourage wildlife viewers to keep enough distance to avoid disturbing calves and cows during this important time of year,” Garrison said.
While elk are a game animal in Washington, many wildlife enthusiasts just want to see them. According to Garrison and WDFW wildlife biologist Anthony Novack, some of the best places to view Roosevelt elk are the Queets and Quinault valleys in Olympic National Park, Dosewallips State Park, WDFW’s Johns River and Elk River wildlife area units, and the Black River National Wildlife Refuge.
“They tend to like the estuaries,” Novack said. “Around the river mouths, where the saltwater comes in, there tends to be this big area devoid of trees.”
Managing elk-human conflicts
As special as it is to see a Roosevelt elk, WDFW encourages viewing them from afar and keeping wildlife wild.
Elk that become too comfortable with humans may become aggressive and, in some cases, must be lethally removed for public safety. They can also become seriously ill from eating foods that aren’t part of their natural diets.
“Don’t feed them,” Garrison said. “That’s the No. 1 thing I try to tell people. While that might feel good and you might feel like you’re doing them a favor, you’re really not.”
Though not as common as with deer, vehicle collisions with elk are reported every year. When driving in low light, such as early morning or late afternoon, keep an extra close eye on the road — and watch for elk crossing signs.
Agricultural conflicts are more common, with elk damaging fences and getting into crops such as blueberries and cranberries.
“The elk will go and wallow in the cranberry, so the cranberry plant dies and it takes multiple years to get re-established,” Novack said.
A 6- to 8-foot-tall elk fence is the best way to prevent damage to property and crops. Visit WDFW’s elk webpage for more information.