In 1928, eight yearling Roosevelt Elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti) were introduced from the Ho Valley on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State to Kodiak Island where they were raised for one year at the Experimental Agricultural Research Station in Kalsin Bay near the town of Kodiak. Biologists originally planned to release the elk on Kodiak Island, but ranchers on the island were concerned the elk would compete with their cattle for the limited winter food supply, so in 1929, biologists instead transplanted the elk to Afognak Island, a large island in the Kodiak Archipelago just north of Kodiak. By 1965, the herd had expanded from the original eight calves to between 1,200 and 1,500 elk, and the population had spread to nearby Raspberry Island. Several harsh winters with heavy snowfalls in the late 1960s and early 1970s caused increased mortality and reduced calf production in the herd, but by the 1980s, the herd had recovered to 1,200 animals. Today in the late 2000s, approximately 900 elk live on Afognak and Raspberry Islands. The only other elk in Alaska are Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus elaphus nelson) that were introduced from Oregon to Etolin Island in Southeast Alaska in 1987. This herd has now expanded to Zarembo Island.
Elk are members of the deer family. They are larger than deer and caribou but smaller than moose. An elk’s body is gray to brown in color, with dark brown legs and a brown neck. A large, yellow patch covers the rump. Males have antlers that can grow very large. The antlers sweep back over the shoulders, and the spikes point forward. Bulls shed their antlers in the winter and grow new ones the following summer.
Elk give birth in late May or early June, and soon after giving birth, cow elk and their calves band together. Sometimes one cow elk will babysit the calves while the other mothers search for food. By July, the calves are still nursing but begin to eat on their own. In August, bands of elk come together to form herds, consisting of cows, calves, yearlings and sometimes a mature bull. Small bands of bulls form nearby but separate from the herd. In September, the bulls join the main herd for the mating season. During this time, bulls challenge each other by emitting high-pitched whistles or “bugles” and sometimes push and shove each other with their large antlers. By mid-October, once breeding has ended, the herds disperse into smaller bands, and the elk move into their wintering areas in the lower valleys or near the coastline where they search for food.
Elk graze from late spring to early fall when there is more food available, including grasses, forbs, and other leafy vegetation. By late fall, they mainly browse, feeding on sprouts and branches of trees and shrubs. Elk are big animals that require a large amount of food, and since they live in herds, they can quickly over-graze their food supply and decimate the native vegetation.
Biologists estimate 900 elk live in seven herds on Afognak Island and one herd on Raspberry Island. Logging on Afognak Island has impacted elk habitat there, but biologists consider the herd to be healthy. Elk occasionally swim to Kodiak Island, but while individual elk have been seen on Kodiak, no herd has become established there.
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