Some say that the American elk is no elk at all. "Elk" derives from the German "elch" referring to the European moose. But "elk" was apparently adapted for its current use long before Lewis and Clark. In 1806, however, the Shawnee Indian name "wapiti" was proposed as the official one, to avoid the old confusion. The Indian name is made up of words meaning "white" and "deer," apparently referring to the light coloration of some of the animals, or to the whitish rump of both sexes.
Early taxonomists identified the elk as Cervus elaphus, the same species as the European red deer. Derived from Latin and Greek terms that both mean "deer," the name may suggest that our "elk" are indeed the "deer of all deer." In the mid-1880's biologists sparked decades of controversy by concluding that the American elk was a distinct species, deserving of its own name, Cervus canadensus – "deer of Canada." This name may have been drawn from another early designation for the noble animal, the "Canada stag."
C. Hart Merriam went a step further, concluding that elk of North America included as many as six distinct species. His theory did not earn wide support, though the species he described were eventually accepted as sub-species. But that did not put an end to the debate about red deer versus elk. It lasted into the 1970's when it was finally agreed that red deer and American elk were identical, and Cervus elaphus was confirmed as its scientific name.
The Roosevelt elk, Cervus canadensis roosevelti (SIR-vuss can-a-DEN-sis roh-suh-VELT-eye), is the largest sub-species surviving today, with mature bulls often exceeding 1,000 pounds. Their preferred habitat is the wet, thickly forested and brushy slopes of the west side of the Cascades at the fringe of the coastal plain, from northern California to British Columbia.
Today, relatively stable populations of Roosevelt elk exist in the coastal states. California has a small population in the extreme northwest corner of the state, estimated at about 4,500 animals. In Oregon, the estimated population is approximately 65,000 elk. Washington claims another 35,000, and smaller populations exist in pockets along the coast of British Columbia.
Mike Lapinski, The Elk Mystique (Stoneydale Press Publishing Company, 1998).
John Madson, The Elk (Winchester-Western Press, 1966).
Peter Mathiessen, Wildlife in America (Viking Press, 1987).
Dan Pletscher, Director of Wildlife Biology, School of Forestry, University of Montana, personal communication, March 7, 1999.