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Encyclopedia > Wapiti
This article is about red deer. For the town of Red Deer see Red Deer, Alberta
Conservation status: Lower Risk
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Suborder: Ruminantia
Family: Cervidae
Genus: Cervus
Species: elaphus
Binomial name
Cervus elaphus
Linnaeus, 1758

Numerous - see text.

Red deer (Cervus elaphus), known as Wapiti or Elk in North America, are the second largest deer (cervid) in the world, second only to moose (which, confusingly, are called elk in Europe; see Elk). Wapiti is the Shawnee name for this animal meaning 'white rump'. Wapiti are a subspecies of the European red deer.

Wapati weigh 230 to 450 kg and stand 0.75-1.5 m high at the shoulder. Their antlers usually measure 1 -1.5 m across tip to tip. Males often weigh twice as much as females. Wapiti are known for their loud bugling during the rut. In Europe the Red Deer is on average smaller than the Wapati however they are Britain's largest native land mammal, and can reach 1.5m at the shoulder.

For centuries, the wild deer of Britain were reserved exclusively for royalty to hunt. William I of England introduced the death penalty for killing a deer, and a sentence of maiming for attempting to kill a deer. These harsh penalties were abolished during the reign of Henry III, although deer were still preserved by law for the sport of the monarch until the nineteenth century.



Adult Red Deer usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year, coming together to mating during October. Dring the maiting ritual, called the rut, mature stags compete for the attentions of the hinds and will then try to defend hinds that they attract. Rival stags challenge opponents by bellowing and walking in parallel. If neither stag backs down a clash of antlers can occur, and stags sometimes sustain serious injury.

After the rut the stags and hinds separate. The fawns are born the following June and are usually weaned by eight months, although they may stay with their mother after this time. The newborn fawns are left by their mothers for long periods in long vegetation their mothers returning at intervals to feed them.

Preditors and disease

Apart from man, bears, wolves and [[lynx|lynxes] prey on red deer in Europe, but all these natural preditors are extinct in Britain. The primary predators of adult Wapati in North America are mountain lions, wolves, and grizzlies. Coyotes and black bears sometimes prey on the fawns. Red deer, like other cervids, are subject to chronic wasting disease, which may be similar to Mad cow disease.

Distribution in North America

One of the largest North American game animals, they live in open forest and near forest edges in similar environment as deer. In mountain regions, they are known for living in rugged high elevations during the summer, and in winter they gather in lower areas with more shelter.

Formerly widespread through Siberia and North America, in taiga, temperate forests and grassland, Wapati are found throughout North America, especially in Rocky Mountain region. Western wapiti have been brought to several states east of the Mississippi River including the Appalachian area where the now extinct subspecies Eastern Elk Cervus elaphus canadensis once lived.

The current wapati population of the United States is estimated to be about one-tenth of the historic level. The population along with most other North American game animals reached a low point around 1900. However populations have rebounded with controls on hunting. There were estimated to be 782,500 wapati in North America in 1989. About 72,000 then lived in Canada. Some 20,000 are in wapati ranches where they are raised for meat, antlers or for hunting. Most wapati live in the west, especially the Rocky Mountain region. Only 3,500 wapati live in the wild in the US east of Mississippi and that population is spread over 7 states. The population is similarly small in eastern Canada.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made a gift of wapati to New Zealand, where they were released into the southwestern part of the South Island.


Wapati, like moose and caribou, are an Old World deer species that originated in Eurasia and spread to North America, crossing the Bering Land Bridge during the ice age. North American elk were once considered a separate species, and the Eurasian red deer another species. Scientists now consider the North American Elk and Eurasian red deer to be the same species. Cervus elaphus has roughly 27 subspecies, including some on the endangered species list: the Bactrian deer (C. e. bactrianus), Barbary deer (C. e. barbarus), Corsican red deer (C. e. corsicanus), Asiatic hangul or Kashmir deer (C. e. hanglu), Izubr stag or Isyubra deer/Manchurian red deer (C. e. xanthopygos), McNeill's red deer or Szechuan red deer (C. e. macneilli), Shou (C. e. affims) and Yarkand deer (C. e. yarkandanseis). Some of the other subspecies are the Alshansk or Ala-Shan red deer (C. e. alshanicus), Altai red deer (C. e. asiaticus or sibiricus), Balkan red deer (C. e. hippelaphus), Kansu red deer (C. e. kansuensis), Maral (C. e. sibiricus), Norwegian red deer (C. e. atlanticus), Scottish red deer (C. e. scoticus), Shingielt red deer (C. e. wachei), Spanish red deer (C. e. hispanicus), Swedish red deer (C. e. elaphus), Tien-Shan red deer (C. e. songaricus) and Wallich's deer (C. e. Wallichii). There were originally six subspecies of elk in North America with an estimated population of about 10 million; the Rocky Mountain or Yellowstone elk (C. e. nelsoni), Manitoba elk (C. e. manatobensis), Olympic or Roosevelt elk (C. e. roosevelti) and the Tule elk (C. e. nannodes) still survive. The Eastern elk (C. e. canadensis) and the Merriam's elk (C. e. merriami) are considered extinct.


Red Deer first appear in fossil records around 13 million years ago in Eurasia. However, wapati do not appear in the North American fossil records until about 120,000 years ago, when they crossed the Bering land bridge. Once on the North American continent they moved south and east. Around 70,000 years ago they were isolated into four different populations. One of these was found in the Alaska / Yukon region, one in the Washington / Oregon coastal region, another in western California, and the largest population east of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains, extending to the Appalachian Mountains and into southern Canada and northern Mexico.

With the arrival of the Europeans to North America and the migration of man toward the west came the need for food and the hunting of what seemed like unlimited game, mainly buffalo and wapati. Hunting for meat progressed into sport hunting and the wanton slaughter and extinction of the Eastern Elk, and the near extinction of the Rocky Mountain Elk. Merriam’s Elk eventually succumbed to extinction after hunting brought the numbers below viable breeding populations. In the early 1900's concerned sportsmen foresaw the eventual demise of many game animals and sought, and implemented, hunting seasons and limits, which saved many species which would have otherwise perished.

North American subspecies

Of the six North American subspecies of wapiti, two are extinct, through hunting and habitat loss, the Eastern Elk, through human settlement, and the southwestern wapiti (Merriam's Elk) through hunting and increased desertification. A population of Merriam's Elk existed in the Guadelupe Mountains of Texas (present herds of elk in the mountains of Texas were released in 1928 from North Dakota). Of the Eastern 'Elk' the last wapiti in Eastern Tennessee was shot in 1849. The last free wapiti in Iowa were recorded in 1871.

The Washington / Oregon population later evolved into two different subspecies, the Olympic elk of southwestern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and northwestern Californa; and the Tule Elk of central California. As the Wisconsin Glacial age ended around 10,000 years ago, a population of elk was isolated from the large eastern population and became the now extinct Merriam’s Elk of Mexico and the southwestern United States. As the Great Plains evolved the remainder of the eastern populations became separated again. One of these populations may have evolved with the Great Plains to become the Manitoba Elk. At the same time the eastern population was separating into two more groups, those of the eastern deciduous forests became the now extinct Eastern Elk; those of the western coniferous forests became the Rocky Mountain Elk. These six subspecies inhabited most of North America when the Europeans first arrived.

According to the Cervid researcher Dr. Valerius Geist, the difference in these subspecies is a result of their environment, the genetic difference being minute. Because of this he says they will all look alike after a few generations if they are kept in captivity under similar conditions. He maintains that while crossbreeding does produce hybrid vigor, in which the offspring are larger than either parent, hybrid vigor only lasts for a few generations.

Rocky Mountain Elk

Contrary to popular belief the Rocky Mountain Elk was not an animal of the plains that retreated to the mountains because of the encroachment of man. Elk always lived in the Rocky Mountains. Rocky Mountain elk currently inhabit the Rocky Mountains from central British Columbia and Alberta through Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, northeastern Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, the western portions of North and South Dakota. There are scattered populations of transplanted animals in many other states; western Nebraska, northeast Minnesota and northern Michigan among them. The current North American elk population is about 3/4 million animals.

Rocky Mountain elk bulls weigh 700-800 pounds and cows 450-550 pounds. Bulls may stand five feet at the shoulder, with legs three feet long and body lengths of eight feet. Their coloration is generally tan with dark brown legs, neck, head and belly, with a buff colored rump. Bulls may be lighter colored than cows, appearing silver at times. White and silver colored animals do not appear in the wild. Antlers of mature bulls usually have six or more points per side with main beam lengths of 60 inches (1.5 m), inside spreads may reach 48 inches.

Roosevelt Elk

Roosevelt Elk inhabit the northern portion of California and the western portions of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Transplants have been made to Afognak Island in Alaska. Estimates of the total population range from 20,000 to 30,000. Roosevelt Elk are larger and darker than Rocky Mountain Elk. Bulls may weigh in excess of 1000 pounds. Their racks often have several points forming a crown or basket at the normal fourth tine, and the beams may be slightly flattened or palmated.

Manitoba Elk

Manitoba Elk inhabit central Manitoba, east central Saskatchewan and the badlands of North Dakota. Many of the Canadian elk are found in and near Riding Mountain and Prince Albert National Parks, and Duck Mountain Provincial Park. The coat of the Manitoba Elk is darker than the Rocky Mountain Elk. It is generally not as tall, but is stockier than the Rocky Mountain Elk with similar body weights. Populations are stable at about 10,000 animals.

Tule Elk

Great herds of tule elk formerly inhabited the California Central Valley grasslands and the California Chaparral and Woodlands of central California, but were reduced to near-extinction by hunting and habitat loss, primarily the conversion of grasslands and wetlands to agriculture and pastureland. Cattleman Henry Miller, who owned vast tracts of the southern Central Valley, created a small private preserve in the 1870's in order to save the subspecies.

In 1932, the herd was given permanent protection in a 950 acre (3.8 kmē) property, now known as Tule Elk State Reserve, near Buttonwillow in central California's Kern County. Tule elk also inhabit adjacent areas of mainly private land. They are smaller than other subspecies, with bulls averaging 500 pounds (230 kg). The current population is about 2000 animals. Hunting on private land has been reopened in recent years, however there are a very limited number or permits (40?) available for both resident and nonresident hunters. Hunt costs are around $13,000 through the services of an outfitter. The world record non-typical scores 340.

In 1978 tule elk were reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, north of San Francisco. The herd has since grown to over 500 individuals in two herds. Another herd lives in Ohlone Wilderness in Alameda County, a preserve maintained by the East Bay Regional Park District.

External references

Red Deer at WorkingForWildlife.org.uk (http://www.workingforwildlife.org.uk/reserves/deer.htm)

  • Detailed story of Wapati (http://www.cws-scf.ec.gc.ca/hww-fap/hww-fap.cfm?ID_species=68&lang=e)
  • Wapiti in Texas. (http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/cervelap.htm)
  • Wapiti statistics. (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/cervus/c._elaphus.html)

  Results from FactBites:
MSN Encarta - Wapiti (281 words)
Wapiti, also American elk, ruminant mammal native to the northern part of the western hemisphere from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and conspecific with the red deer of Europe, northwestern Africa, and Asia.
The wapiti formerly ranged throughout the temperate regions of the western hemisphere, but the advance of civilization limited its range and caused huge herds to be slaughtered for food and sport.
In late spring some populations of wapiti leave the lowlands and migrate to the upper reaches of the mountain forests.
wapiti - definition of wapiti in Encyclopedia (1603 words)
Wapiti is the Shawnee name for this animal meaning 'white rump'.
Wapiti are a subspecies of the European red deer.
A population of Merriam's Elk existed in the Guadelupe Mountains of Texas (present herds of elk in the mountains of Texas were released in 1928 from North Dakota).
  More results at FactBites »



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