The elk (Cervus canadensis), known as the red deer or wapiti, had a wide range throughout the Northern Hemisphere. However, habitat degradation and extensive hunting during the settlement era resulted in the decrease of their populations or complete extirpation.
Today, elk herds are present in some U.S. states due to successful transplantations, effective management plans, and continued conservation efforts.
There are approximately 1,057,713 to 1,087,568 elks in the U.S. dispersed across 31 states, with as many as 280,000 in Colorado and as few as 10 in Florida. Elks are extirpated in the remaining states that have no thriving breeding populations, mainly due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss.
If you want to know more about these thriving elk populations, why some states don’t have any wild elks present in their vicinity, and other interesting information, make sure to read further!
Table of Contents
What Is the Difference Between Moose and Elk?
|Appearance||Massive body with a large head, short and thick neck, humped shoulders, long and slender legs, short tail, and a distinctive bulbous and drooping muzzle. Moose have the largest antlers in any mammal.||Thick body with a long head, large ears, shaggy mane that hangs from the neck area down to the chest, long and slender legs, and short tail.|
|Color||Dark and can range from black to grayish brown to brown. Legs have a lighter color. There exists an all-white color morph but is rare.||Ranges in color from tan to dark brown depending on the season. Its neck, head, legs, and belly are darker than its flanks and back area.|
|Lifespan||Up to 18.4 years (captivity), Up to 22 years (wild)||Up to more than 20 years (wild), Up to more than 20 years (captivity)|
|Size||2.3 to 3.1 meters||1.6 to 2.7 meters|
|Weight||270 to 771 kilograms||67 to 497 kilograms|
|Diet||Twigs and stems of woody plants as well as shoots of deciduous plants. They also feed on shrubs, trees, and willows.||Grasses, forbs, sedges, and woody plants.|
|Habitat||Taiga and forests (boreal, coniferous-deciduous, and broadleaf)||Open woodlands, forests (aspen-hardwood and coniferous-hardwood), coniferous swamps, and clear cuts|
|Characteristics||Solitary except during mating season, non-territorial, and crepuscular. Depending on their range and habitat, they can either be sedentary or migratory.||Social animals that are known to group together in herds made of as much as 400 individuals. Migratory, territorial, and crepuscular.|
31 U.S. States | Elk Population
Originally considered non-native to Alaska, elks now have a stable population of 900 elk on Afognak Island, 400 on both Etolin Island and Zarembo Island, and a few unestimated elks on other islands.
Thanks to the successful translocation of 8 Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) calves from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State to Afognak Island in 1929, the state has a thriving breeding population of elks. A second transplant was done in 1987 when 33 Roosevelt elk and 17 Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) were moved from Oregon to Etolin Island.
Hunting seasons in the islands are state-regulated. Only those with hunting licenses are permitted to participate. Annual harvests since the late 2000s usually reach around 100 elks.
Currently, the state’s elk herd consists only of the Rocky Mountain elk. The Merriam elk (Cervus elaphus merriami) was once a native to Arizona before European settlement but has since been extirpated by the early 1900s. Now, elks in the state occupy the subalpine zones of the White Mountains and San Francisco peaks.
Between 1912 and 1967, more than 13,500 elks were translocated from Yellowstone Park and into the state. Additionally, 83 elks were released and reintroduced in Cabin Draw in 1913. Due to these transplants, elks have flourished into the stable populations Arizona has today.
Hunting is regulated in the state to manage elk populations but is only permitted with the mandatory acquisition of hunting licenses.
The current elk populations in the state are stable and thriving, consisting of the Rocky Mountain elk. The Eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) used to be a native in Arkansas and was known to live in hardwood and Eastern pine forests until its extirpation by the 1840s.
In 1933, the USDA Forest Service introduced the Rocky Mountain Elk in Black Mountain Refuge, Franklin County. This herd reached an estimated 200 but vanished out of nowhere with no definitive cause. However, illegal hunting, habitat loss, and natural mortality were suspected reasons.
A restoration project was done between 1981 and 1985, which released 112 elk from Nebraska and Colorado in Newton County near the Buffalo National River. Due to this, elks are once again living residents in Arkansas.
California is home to the smallest species of elk in North America—the Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes). Early records claim that there were about 500,000 Tule elks in the state but have drastically been reduced from 1800 to 1849 due to hunting, an increasing number of settlers, and the gold rush.
Currently, elk hunting in the state is regulated and also requires hunting licenses and tags. The latest quota, which is issued for the 2022 hunting season, is 281 individual elks.
Other species of elk in the state are 5,000 to 6,000 Roosevelt elks, which inhabit forested slopes, and 1,500 Rocky Mountain elks, which were a product of translocation and are found in the Northeastern corner of California.
Colorado has the largest population of elks in the world thanks to the conservation efforts of the Colorado Parks & Wildlife and their associated partners. The state imported 50 elks from Wyoming and released them in the Greenhorn Mountains in Pueblo County and Idaho Springs to increase their population in 1916 as the number of herds was quickly decreasing.
The state has established hunting seasons to help stabilize herd health and acquire funding for continued research and conservation efforts. Residential and commercial development, as well as energy development and excessive land use, are the known associated challenges that threaten elk populations in Colorado.
Historically, 6 elks were released in Buck Island Breeding Ranch, a private agro-ecology research center located in Highlands County, around 1967-1968. The herd successfully increased to less than 30 individuals. However, the latest estimates in 1993 state that only 10 animals were seen in the area.
Idaho maintains a whopping 120,000 elk population by managing herds within their designated ranges, adjusting hunting seasons and numbers when necessary, and working in cooperation with land managers and private landowners to ensure that the elks live in optimal environmental conditions.
Elks, specifically the state-native Rocky Mountain elk, can be found in sagebrush deserts, thick-timbered ridges, and mountains. Despite having a stable breeding population, they are still threatened by weather changes, predation, development, invasive species, and fire events.
Overhunting, the lack of hunting laws and seasons, and the lack of a proper management system in place caused the drastic decline of elk populations in Iowa during the European settlement. By the 1860s, they were extirpated from the state, with the last sighting reported in 1871.
Currently, there are elks in Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, but there are no official estimates on how many they are. They share an 800-acre fenced area with bison and are usually spotted during the late fall season to early spring when the tallgrass prairie is shorter and dormant.
Elks were common big game species in the state before settlement but were extirpated by the end of the 19th century due to overhunting. Luckily, a small herd was managed in Maxwell Wildlife Area, a 2,600-acre enclosure that serves as a refuge for both elks and bison.
Elk were released from Maxwell in the 1980s and have been free-ranging. To manage these animals (i.e., to keep them from damaging crops and from growing larger), regulated hunting seasons are established.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks receives 900 applications for hunting permits, but they only allot about 20 annually, which is divided among residents and military personnel.
Elks were native to the state and were in thriving populations until the middle of the 1880s when the animals faced a massive decline in numbers due to overhunting and habitat degradation. Thanks to Kentucky’s elk restoration program that released 1,550 wild elk from December 1997 to March 2002, the state has re-established a stable, thriving population of elks.
Hunting season first began in 2001, with hunters being required to obtain permits. Each hunter is allowed only 1 elk annually, but they are free to hunt outside designated elk hunting zones to better control elk populations, especially in agricultural areas.
Native elk in the state disappeared around 1875 but were successfully restored when 7 elks were released near Wolverine. However, their population faced constant fluctuation over the decades. Only 200 elk were left in 1975 from the previous 1,500 individuals due to poaching and habitat degradation. By 1984, their numbers had increased to 850 thanks to conservation efforts.
The elks’ range in Michigan is in southern Cheboygan, Montmorency, and Otsego counties. The best time to view the animals is in September and October, during their breeding season, as they can be seen foraging in open grassy areas.
Overharvest and the conversion of the state’s prairie environment to agricultural, elks were extirpated in Michigan in the early 1900s. However, due to a successful relocation of 27 elks done in 1935, the state now has a thriving breeding population. They currently occupy Northwestern Minnesota, specifically in Northern Grygla, Kittson, and Roseau counties.
Currently, there are 3 herds occupying Minnesota. The largest herd, the Caribou-Vita herd, is composed of more than 150 elks. Meanwhile, the Kittson-Central group consists of about 60 elk, and the Grygla herd has about 17 elk.
Population: 180 to 185
Market hunting had completely eradicated elk populations in the state by the mid-1880s. The Missouri Department of Conservation was able to translocate elks captured in Kentucky into Peck Ranch Conservation Area in 2011. Additionally, more elk were brought in 2012 and 2013, bringing today’s population estimate to be around 180 to 185 individuals located in Shannon, Carter, and Reynolds counties.
Currently, there are no established hunting seasons in Missouri as it has not yet been approved by the Missouri Conservation Commission.
In 1978, the state established a conservation and management plan to restore the significantly depleted elk population as a result of overhunting during the late 1800s to early 1900s. It has since been proven successful as Montana is now home to one of the country’s largest populations of elk.
Hunting in the state is regulated through licenses, the establishment of hunting district boundaries, and mandating the proper disposal of carcasses. Hunting season generally begins in early September to mid-October.
Population: 2,500 to 3,000
Due to consumptive uses made by miners, settlers, and market hunters, elks were extirpated from Nebraska in the 1880s. A stable, nonmigratory population was established in the 1950s and 1960s found throughout the riversides and hills of the central and western regions of the state.
The Nebraska Game and Parks and U.S. Forest Service provided public lands and hunting areas for elk hunters. According to researchers, the Nebraska elk population will continue to increase over the years due to higher social tolerance for elk and the expansion of herds into unoccupied habitats.
Elks were extirpated from the state by the end of the 19th century due to the over-exploitation of natural resources, diseases, and hunting. Nevada sportsmen began reintroducing elk in the early 1930s, and through the succeeding years, the state’s elk populations have slowly grown to the stable, thriving numbers they are today.
Today, elks live in the alpine, tundra, upland forests, sagebrush, and cold desert shrubland areas in Nevada. Elk hunting began in 1945, with the harvests amounting to 1,144 elk during all 33 open seasons at that time.
Population: 70,000 to 90,000
Around 2,000 elk were observed in the southern regions of New Mexico in 1875. However, they were extirpated from the state by 1909 due to overhunting. The year after, Bartlett Ranch stocks 15 elk obtained from Yellowstone National Park, and from then on, elk populations were steadily increasing. By 1999, the estimate was 72,000 total individuals.
Today, elks in the state can be found in mountainous regions as well as in dark, cool forests with well-distributed large and small meadows. Elk hunting can be done in public, private, and even tribal lands in New Mexico, provided hunters obtain licenses.
Population: 150 to 200
North Carolina is home to the Manitoban elk (Cervus elaphus manitobensis) thanks to a reintroduction done by the National Perk Service wherein they released 52 elk into the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 2001 and 2002. It was done as part of a project to discern whether or not the elks could survive and reproduce in the area. By 2008, the project was deemed successful.
Before its extirpation from the state due to loss of habitat and unregulated hunting by 1800, the Eastern elk had a wide distribution throughout North Carolina.
Population: 700 to 1,000
Elks were considered natives to the Badlands of North Dakota until their extirpation from the state in the late 1800s due to human development and overhunting.
The staff and management of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park managed to reintroduce elks obtained from Wind Cave National Park into the North Dakota Badlands in March 1985. Since then, elk populations have flourished thanks to the favorable habitat provided by the area, productive forage, and the absence of natural predators.
As part of the park’s management program, the staff used wildlife collars to properly track elk, specifically female elk, so that their movements in and out of the park boundary and region can be used as data for research as well as for helping locate the herds and managing their population dynamics.
Elk herds in the state can be located in the Pushmataha, Spavinaw, Cherokee, and Cookson Hills wildlife management areas, as well as in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, smaller-sized herds can also be found on private lands in Caddo, Comanche, and Kiowa counties.
Due to the lack of a proper management system, elks could potentially overpopulate throughout their available range and subsequently degrade habitats. This prompted the Wildlife Department and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a controlled hunting season to manage their growing populations in 1966.
Oregon is home to 2 subspecies of elk: the Rocky Mountain elk, which has an estimated population of 59,000 and is found in the Eastern part of the state, particularly in the Blue Mountains area, as well as the Roosevelt elk, which has a population amounting to more than 74,000 and are concentrated in the Blue Mountains.
Both subspecies have controlled hunting seasons with limited entry. Roosevelt elks are usually found in thick and lush forests, while Rocky Mountain elks prefer open country areas. However, the Department of Fish & Wildlife suggests still-hunting, spot and stalk, and calling techniques to increase hunters’ chances of catching an elk.
Elks have a historical range in north central Pennsylvania and the Pocono Mountains. However, they were extirpated by 1867 as they have been shot on sight whenever citizens or settlers got the chance. The Pennsylvania Game Commission was able to replenish elk populations in the state by reintroducing 72 animals from Yellowstone National Park and Monroe County in 1913.
Regulated hunting seasons began in 2001 when the elk herds in the state had a stable population. Only a limited number of hunters annually are permitted to partake in the hunt.
The majority of the elk herds that occur in the state are dispersed across prairie and agricultural landscapes within the Black Hills. Elks were extirpated from South Dakota in the late 1800s but have been successfully reestablished thanks to the state’s management and conservation efforts.
Hunting seasons are regulated with the provision of hunting licenses, which are distributed through a lottery draw system. Elk hunters are required to report any of their harvested elks to a South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks representative within 24 hours. In 2021, there were a total of 619 elk harvests made.
The last historically recorded elk in the state was killed in Obion County in 1865. Although there is no consensus on how the population of elks in Tennessee declined, possible reasons were due to habitat destruction, over-exploitation, and private ownership of land, which required the conversion of elk habitat for human use. Thanks to the reintroduction of elks in December 2000, the state now has a flourishing population of elks.
Hunting seasons in the state began in 2009 through a quota system. In fact, applications for elk hunting are highly endorsed by the state.
Overhunting was the main culprit of the extirpation of elks in the state at the beginning of the 20th century. Thanks to a reintroduction of 44 elk from the Black Hills, the current population of elks is stable and thriving.
Historically, the state’s native subspecies of elk was the Merriam elk, which is now considered extinct. The current elk herds in Texas are composed of the Eastern elk and were reintroduced from South Dakota. Today, elks are grouped into 5 herds and are free-ranging in the Guadalupe Mountains, Davis Mountains, Glass Mountains, Wylie Mountains, and Eagle Mountains. There are also privately owned elk located on ranches across the state.
Before settlement, elk were the most widespread game animals in the state. However, their populations have greatly diminished since people were using them as a source of clothing and food. Due to unregulated hunting, most of the elk were eliminated by the end of the 19th century. Transplant efforts occurred from 1912 to 1925 to re-establish the elks back in their historical ranges in Utah.
Today, elks prefer inhabiting the aspen conifer forests of Utah, particularly at high elevations during the summer and at low elevations in sagebrush and mountain shrub areas during the winter season.
Elks are managed through a combination of limited entry hunting and general hunting seasons. Their populations are being threatened by habitat loss due to urbanization, human development, and road construction.
The overharvesting of elk around the 1700s to the late 1800s caused the extirpation of the animals from the state. In 1917, the Virginia Game Commission began its elk reintroduction efforts as they released 140 to 150 elk in 9 counties in the state. The last capture and release done by the department were in 2012 and 2014.
Hunting began in 2000 wherein interested hunters were only required to obtain a deer license. In 2019, legislation was established to create an appropriate elk tag and create an elk harvest strategy within the Wise, Buchanan, and Dickenson Counties.
Population: 53,150 to 62,150
Washington is home to 2 subspecies of elks–the Roosevelt elk and the Rocky Mountain elk and is scattered in 10 established herds across the state. Their populations are in North Cascades, Selkirk, North and South Rainier, Blue Mountains, Colockum, Willapa Hills, the Olympics, Mount St. Helens, and Yakima. They occupy a variety of habitats but prefer coastal areas, slopes, mountain ranges, and shrub steppes.
Hunting seasons are regulated in the state, and interested hunters can participate by obtaining a big game hunting license and a firearm elk tag. Only 1 elk per hunter is allowed during the season except for those with special permits.
Due to timbering, subsistence hunting, and market hunting, elks were extirpated from the hills and mountains of the state in the late 1800s. Elk restoration efforts were not completely pursued until late December 2016 when 24 elk were obtained from Kentucky and released in the state. For the first time in over 14 decades, wild elk were once again seen roaming around the vicinity of West Virginia’s mountains. Subsequent releases were made in 2018 and 2020.
There is no established hunting season in the state as they are still currently trying to repopulate elks in their state range.
After being eliminated in the state due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting in the 1880s, elks were reintroduced into Wisconsin in 1995 and with a subsequent release in 2015. Currently, there are 2 established herds in the state: the Clam Lake herd, which has a population estimate of 330 elks, and the Black River herd, with 115 elks.
Elk hunting began in 2018 when the state established a thriving population of elks enough to sustain harvests. A hunting license and tag are required before participating in the season.
Before settlement, Rocky Mountain elks were found flourishing in the western region of the state, while Manitoban elk herds inhabited the other eastern portion. The Manitoban elk was driven to extinction right before the 1900s, while small populations of the Rocky Mountain elks remained dispersed across the state.
Wyoming has 3 management strategies to conserve their thriving elk populations: range preservation by decreasing the amount of domestic livestock grazing, range improvement through a variety of techniques (such as range pitting, dozing, clear-cutting, chaining, and burning, and hunting), and regulated hunting.
Tabular Presentation of Elk Population per State
|Iowa||Unknown (No Official Estimate)|
|Missouri||180 to 185|
|Nebraska||2,500 to 3,000|
|New Mexico||70,000 to 90,000|
|North Carolina||150 to 200|
|North Dakota||700 to 1,000|
|Washington||53,150 to 62,150|
US States That Do Not Have Elk population
Except for the Southern regions of the state, Eastern elks were believed to occupy open, dense woodland habitats in Alabama prior to their extinction.
The Alabama Department of Game and Fish obtained 55 Rocky Mountain elks from Wyoming in 1916 to help reestablish breeding populations in the state. However, this failed as poaching, disease, and crop damage problems prevented the elks to flourish. The last reported elk of this group was killed in Chilton County in 1921, thus completely extirpating elks from the state.
A sizable population of elks were present in the state during the 1600s. They inhabited dense forests and woodlands but were extirpated from Connecticut due to hunting and habitat loss caused by deforestation around the middle of the 1700s to the 1800s. Today, the state has no breeding populations of elk.
3. Elks, specifically the now-extinct Eastern elk, were extirpated from Delaware even before the settlers arrived in the country. An archaeologist speculates that it may have been because of Iroquois Indian hunters who used guns instead of bows and arrows which contributed to the quick extinction of the animal.
Central Georgia was home to elks prior to the arrival of European settlers. However, due to exploitation and overhunting, they were extirpated before the turn of the century. The first reported elk sighting in the state after 275 years was in 2016 when a resident came across the animal as it was walking down Eastatoe Creek Road.
Hawaii does not have any native land mammals, except for the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, due to the fact that the state is an isolated archipelago and therefore has a unique biogeography that allows it, instead, to be home to a diversity of marine mammals and birds thanks to the state’s tropical ocean environment and forests.
Once roaming free statewide, elks have been extirpated from the state by the early 1800s. Currently, there are no thriving populations of elk in Illinois. However, some are being held in captivity by private landowners, although some would escape their enclosures occasionally. Hence, sightings that are being reported to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are mostly those animals that have escaped.
As settlements began establishing at or near elk habitats in Indiana, the population of elks have drastically declined, resulting in their extirpation by 1840. However, there exists small-scale agricultural enterprises in the state that produce elks in farms but are mainly used for hunting preserves and as breeding stock, processed meat products, and antlers.
Historical records suggest that elks may have roamed freely through the heavily forested areas of Louisiana. No additional information is available to discern whether or not they have truly been present in the state and, if they did, there is no evidence that points that they were extirpated.
Although the population and historical range of elks in the state are unknown, there have been evidence of fossil bones located in Maine. However, it remains unclear the reasons behind the extirpation of elks in the state.
Elks were extirpated from the state in the 1700s, likely due to habitat loss and hunting pressure. The animals once roamed a small prairie area near Hagerstown. The last reported elk in Maryland was killed in 1874.
Elks were extirpated from the state in the early 1700s. The last live record of an elk in Massachusetts was from Worcester County in 1732. There are occasional sightings but none have been confirmed by the officials.
Mississippi was once home to elks, possibly the Eastern elk, prior to their extirpation from the state. It is unknown what the causes were but it may be due to hunting and loss of habitat. Today, the state has no breeding populations of elk.
13. New Hampshire
There used to be a considerable number of elks in the state prior to their extirpation. They were not a native to New Hampshire–instead, 12 elks were given to the state by the Blue Mountain Forest Park and were released near Ragged Mountain. Their populations increased but so did hunting pressure.
In 1941, hunters harvested 46 elk in the towns of Goshen, Lempster, Unity, and Washington. In 1955, only about 20 to 30 elk were left alive. However, no management actions were done to preserve their populations and there was a lack of appropriate habitats for the elks. Eventually, the remaining elk were believed to have been shot by poachers or farmers.
14. New Jersey
Currently, there are no wild populations of elk roaming in New Jersey. However, two female elks are being kept in Cape May County Park and Zoo, which means it is also possible that there are privately owned elk in the state.
15. New York
The last known elk in the state was killed in 1847, which resulted in the extirpation of elks in New York. The New York State Conservation Department has made several restoration attempts from 1900 to 1940. However, it was proven unsuccessful as the populations on the release sites were wiped out due to poaching and/or disease in 1946.
Elks occupied the state’s forests, prairies, and open woodlands during the pre-settlement period. During the settlement, hunting pressure became heavy and elk habitats were rapidly degrading. By 1838, elks had disappeared from Ohio completely. Currently, there are no wild populations of elks in Ohio but are instead raised privately by some residents.
17. Rhode Island
Today, there are no wild elks roaming the state as far as the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management knows. Importing elk is prohibited too as officials worry the elks might carry diseases with them such as the chronic wasting disease which could fatally infect local deer populations and even nearby farm animals.
18. South Carolina
Elk have been extirpated from the state since early colonial times. However, a bull elk was seen roaming through Northern Pickens County near the Eastatoe Heritage Preserve and the Foothills Trail in 2016. The sighting has been deemed a historic moment as it is the first report of the animal since the 1700s.
There hasn’t been any wild elk freely roaming in the state since the turn of the 19th century. However, 24 Green Mountain facilities are currently raising elks for commercial export and slaughter. In 2017, 16 farm elk escaped their enclosures and were set to be recaptured by the owner and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
Elks are found in 31 U.S. states thanks to translocation, management, and conservation efforts. Hunting seasons are open in most of these states to help control their population growth. Unfortunately, elks have been extirpated from the remaining 19 states due to overhunting and habitat degradation during the settlement period, specifically around the 1700s to 1900s.
List of Sources
Elk. Missouri Department of Conservation.
10 Reasons YOU Should Apply for Tennessee’s Elk Quota Hunts and Raffle! (2020). Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Fricke, K. A., et al. (2008). Historic and Recent Distributions of Elk in Nebraska. University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
2020 Elk Population Status by Elk Zone. Idaho Department of Fish and Game.