Standing nearly five feet at the shoulder, and weighing between 700 and 1,000 pounds, the elk (Cervus elaphus) is the universal symbol of the American West. The second largest antlered animal in North America, the elk is easily distinguished by its cream-colored winter coat and contrasting chestnut mane. In fact, the origin of the Shawnee Indian word "Wapiti," which means "white deer," is derived from the elk's coloration.

With their enormous antlers, elk are easily distinguished from other American ungulates. Yearling bulls may grow buttons, spikes or exhibit up to five tines, but they rarely possess a brow tine. During their second year, young adult bulls, often called raghorns, usually produce multi-tined antlers which include a brow tine. Bulls shed their antlers in March and immediately begin growing replacements. The new growth is covered by a blood-filled velvet coating that eventually hardens into bone. As the antlers reach their maximum size in late August, the velvet dries and is eventually removed by rubbing or scraping the antlers on trees or shrubs. This rubbing hones the bull's antlers to a shine, preparing him for the sparring he will do with other males as mating season begins.

Late September finds the bulls with gleaming antlers, swollen necks and short-tempers. Elk are polygamous, and once the mating season arrives, bulls assemble females, or cows, into harems. A harem contains as many cows as a bull can successfully defend from competing bulls.

Bull elk use a high-pitched, flute-like call, or bugle, to attract cows and to announce their willingness to defend their cows and breeding territory against competing males. The fall mating season is the only time males and females are commonly found together. Cows usually produce a single calf, typically born in May or June. At birth, calves weigh 30 to 40 pounds and possess a tawny-colored coat covered with white speckles. Within a month, the calves begin eating grass, although they continue nursing throughout summer. By fall, the calves are weaned and are independent from their mothers. Like other ruminants, elk consume forbs, fruits and other easily-digestible plants. However, they also eat large amounts of grass and other rough-fiber vegetation, especially during winter. In some areas, elk are known to make long, seasonal migrations between summer and winter ranges, but in Oklahoma they are essentially non-migratory. One of the most popular and sought-after species of wildlife in western North America, the elk is highly adaptable and has been transplanted into many central and eastern states. In Oklahoma, the largest free-ranging elk herds can be found on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, as well as at Pushmataha, Cookson Hills, Spavinaw and Cherokee wildlife management areas. Small herds also inhabit private land in Kiowa, Comanche and Caddo counties. Because their natural predators have largely disappeared, unmanaged elk may overpopulate their available range, causing habitat degradation. In 1966, the Wildlife Department and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reached a cooperative agreement that provided for an annual controlled hunt to manage elk populations at the Wichita Mountains NWR. Since then, the agreement has proven instrumental in controlling herd numbers while allowing a few fortunate hunters, selected through an annual drawing conducted by the Wildlife Department, the opportunity to pursue the American elk in its native habitat. Unlimited wildlife viewing opportunities also are available to outdoor enthusiasts at the refuge. As anyone who has heard the eerie bugle of bull elk at daybreak will attest, we're all fortunate to share the land with the animal known to the Shawnee as, Wapiti.