11 Animals That Eat Elk (Wilderness Meal Guide)

Antlered wild bull elk during rutting season

There aren’t many wild, North American animals that can compare to the size of a full-grown bull elk. A bison, grizzly bear, and full-grown moose are the only animals in this area larger than elk, but even then it’s not by much. Have you ever wondered what animals could take down and eat a full-grown elk?

Elk predators include mountain lions, bears, and wolves, though elk calves can be taken down by bobcats or coyotes. Wolves are the most prolific predators of elk and can take down even full-grown bulls consistently, but they often target weaker animals.

If you have ever seen a full-grown elk, you know they are enormous animals. If you have further wondered what animals will eat these vast creatures, keep reading as we go over 11 animals that eat elk!

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Where Are Elk Found?

Elk are typically found in the northern hemisphere, but they have been introduced to other areas like Australia, New Zealand, and South America. Here in North America, you can find elk in Canada, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and most western states.

You can read more about all of these places in our article: Here Are the 6 Places on Earth Where Elk Live

We can also see these huge herbivores wandering as far south as Tennessee, and as far east as Virginia.

At one time, because of unprecedented sporting, elk were on the endangered list. With quick conservation and protective measures, elk are no longer at risk.

Teddy Roosevelt was instrumental in protecting elk populations with his conservation movement.

According to the USDA, before the United States was born, it is estimated there were over 10 million elk roaming through Canada and America. In the 1900’s, elk populations got all the way down to 100,000 continent wide!

What Does An Elk’s Typical Diet Look Like?

A full-grown bull elk can reach 5 feet tall at the shoulder, and stretch to 8 feet long, nose to tail. They can weigh from 500 to 800 pounds. The bulls are the only ones to grow antlers, which they shed and grow back every year. 

According to the Fish And Wildlife Service, antlers on elk can weigh up to 20 pounds each, they can have up to eight points on each one, and grow up to four feet long.  

Elk are considered herbivores because their main diet consists of grasses, leaves, bark, and other plants. However, there have been reports of elk eating ground-nesting birds’ eggs such as grouse eggs. It all depends on how much food is available, what is available, and the size of the animal.

Based on information from the USDA, adult elk have to eat 3 pounds for every 100 pounds the animal weighs.

For a full-grown, 900lbs male, that could equal 27 pounds of food per day! This is because the food they consume is difficult to digest and so much gets pumped out as waste.

Elk are related to deer, but they are much bigger and have different fur colors. Deer tend to be more of a uniform brown all over aside from the white on their backside—hence the name, white-tail deer. While elk have a distinctive buff-colored rump.

Elk have a darker, scruffy, almost red-colored head and neck, and a lighter brown to tan colored back and body. This can lighten or darken depending on the season. Darker in winter to absorb more heat in the frigid environment they call home. 

11 Animals That Eat Elk

Wild Elk in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

1. Wolves

Wolves are the elk’s biggest natural predators. 5 years after wolves were introduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990’s, elk populations decreased by more than 50%.

A single elk can provide a meal for up to 10 wolves, so these gigantic animals are extremely beneficial to wolf populations!

Wolves run into a herd of elk to scatter them about. The wolves are looking for slow, weak, or injured elk, which are easier to take down. This natural selection also helps to keep the herd strong.

Obviously, if there are calves in the herd, wolves will target them pretty quickly as they are basically defenseless, but they can take on full-grown elk without a problem.

When one elk is targeted and split from the bigger herd, the rest of the wolves converge like a singular unit until they chase the animal down. Then the bigger wolves snap at the back legs to further trip it up or jump onto its neck and back. Once the elk hits the ground, it’s all over, and it’s dinnertime for the wolves.

2. Grizzly Bears

Grizzlies will eat nearly anything they can find. Ungulates are a big part of the grizzly bear diet, so it’s no surprise they will eat elk. Though a grizzly bear won’t often take down a full-size bull elk, they don’t have a problem doing it when the situation presents itself.

Most times when grizzly bears prey on elk, they take down the calves. The bears will chase away the protective elk parents, then easily scoop up the calf when it gets separated.

Grizzly bears will also eat elk carrion if it is available. When elk fall to illness or if other predators take them down and cannot finish the meal, grizzly bears have no problem eating on the carcass.

Hungry bears have also been known to chase away packs of wolves and take their prize. If the wolf pack isn’t very large, that is. It all depends on the size of the wolf pack and how determined the grizzly bear is.

3. Black Bears

Black bears can take down full-grown elk, especially if it has been weakened or injured, but they rarely go after healthy full-grown elk because the bear doesn’t want to risk injury.

A full-grown bull elk can weigh more than a full-grown black bear, and if they have their huge antlers on their heads, the elk can severely injure a black bear.

Black bears do frequently prey on elk calves though. In fact, these bears can remember where elk and other herbivores have given birth before.

They will return to these areas year after year and prey on the newly born calves.

While they are traveling, if a black bear comes across elk calves they might track it down and feast on it. Like grizzly bears, black bears are not opposed to feeding on leftover elk. 

4. Mountain Lions

Portrait of a cougar, mountain lion, puma, panther, striking a pose on a fallen tree, Winter scene in the woods, wildlife America

According to The US Forestry Servicemountain lions consistently go after whitetail deer, but they are predators of many other animals such as elk, bighorn sheep, rabbits, turkey, raccoons, and porcupines. 

Mountain lions are skillful ambush predators. To take something down as big as an elk, they have to get a good jump on the animal and take them down from behind. They will latch onto the back neck where they can clamp down and incapacitate the animal.

When the animal hits the ground either from exhaustion, fatigue or because of the weight of the mountain lion, the big cat then repositions to finish off the elk.

Adult male mountain lions only grow to just over 200lbs on the heavier end, while females are much lighter.

It’s not often that a mountain lion will take down a full-grown adult elk. It’s difficult to see how often they attempt such a feat because mountain lions are very secretive!

5. Bobcats

Another big cat that will take on elk is bobcats. Although bobcats only grow to a fraction of the size of full-grown mountain lions, they will still feed on elk at times. 

The main diet of bobcats are snowshoe hares, squirrels, beavers, and mice. But if these targets are not available, bobcats will target elk calves. They will go after the calves in the spring when they are newly born and weak.

There’s no realistic way a bobcat could take down a healthy adult elk male that weighs 40 times more than them. A newborn baby elk calf, on the other hand, is an easy target for the wily bobcat.  

6. Coyotes

A lone coyote won’t think of messing with a full-grown elk. Unless that elk is nearing the end of its lifecycle or is severely injured. This doesn’t mean coyotes won’t feed on elk.

Some coyotes will team up with other coyotes. Though they are typically loners, some have realized working together is beneficial, especially when the prey is large enough to sustain extra stomachs.

If enough coyotes get together, they can take down an elk. Although, they will often target the smaller, slower, inexperienced calves.

Coyotes are opportunistic feeders and will often hang around larger predators such as wolves or bears—out of reach, of course. When the bigger predators have had their fill, the coyote will come in and nibble at any scraps leftover on the carcass. 

7. Wolverines

The wolverine (not to be confused with Logan from the X-Men) is another animal that doesn’t have a problem scavenging on elk carcasses. In fact, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wolverines are very well adapted to the scavenging life.

Their neck and jaw muscles are so strong these animals have no problem chewing through and crushing frozen elk during the cold!

Wolverines have a reputation for being fearless as well as reckless, but new studies show they aren’t as bad-tempered as everyone initially thought.

They won’t blindly take on wolves or bears, these predators will easily put a wolverine in its place. But they are intelligent and resourceful creatures.

Though they rarely attack larger animals, wolverines have been recorded taking down moose, caribou, and elk. In these instances, sickness, old age, or injury already weakened the animals.

Wolverines, if they get the chance, will take down elk calves, but the most elk these oversized weasels eat are off frozen leftovers.

Their sense of smell and ability to travel dozens of miles in a day helps them to find frozen foods that most other predators can’t eat. 

Ravens

Before you think we have lost our minds, hear us out.

Ravens are smart birds, and like crows, they are omnivores that especially love fresh meat and carrion. Ravens will flock together and pick bits off the bones of a fresh taken down elk when wolves or bears have had their fill. 

In Yellowstone, there have been some interesting information shared where ravens seem to team up with wolves to share in their meals. If ravens find a leftover elk that has not been “opened” yet, they will make so much noise that they attract the wolves.

The wolves then can get through the tough hide the ravens could not, and both animals get a meal. Ravens will feed off the carcass and even take food and store it for later. 

There have been observations where ravens have eaten more off an elk carcass than the wolves could. Though the wolves did all the work on the elk, there were so many ravens they could get the biggest share of the meal. 

Eagles

Both bald eagles and the bigger, more powerful, more aggressive golden eagle have been found scavenging on elk carcasses. Golden eagles have been known to take dall sheep calves, and even eat pronghorn sheep.

Though it may be hard to prove, some say golden eagles have attacked elk before as well. It’s not hard to imagine a huge, golden eagle attacking a defenseless elk calf. We know for sure golden eagles do feed on elk carrion.

Golden eagles aren’t opposed to chasing away other species of birds or scavengers to feed on carcasses, including elk. Some golden eagles have been observed following ravens to a meal, then chasing them away so the eagle could have the meal all to itself.

Magpies

magpies sitting on birch branches, close up

Another very intelligent bird is the magpie. They are not opposed to feeding off tiny scraps of carrion larger animals can’t get to. Once bears, wolves, or other large animals have finished feeding off an elk carcass, the magpie might come around to pick off the hard-to-find remnants.

Though these birds will eat many other things like insects, grain, and acorns, they will readily consume carrion.

Humans

Considering humans nearly wiped out elk back in the early 1900s, we had to put ourselves on the list. Reckless practices and little regard for healthy populations led to elk becoming nearly extinct because of humans.

Fortunately, we recognized we were harming the populations of elk almost irrevocably and we changed our ways. People still go out to bag elk for their meat, but in most states, there is a limit to how many can be taken out in a season.

This way helps to protect the elk populations so that future generations can still enjoy these massive, majestic creatures.

That’s A Wrap!

If you’ve been lucky enough to see some of these majestic cousins of the deer in the wild, you’d likely be impressed by their sheer size. Especially if they had a full rack of antlers on their heads.

Even though they are one of the largest land mammals in North America, they still have plenty of predators to look out for.

Once they are full-grown and have a four feet tall pair of dangerous antlers on their heads, mountain lions, wolves, and bears (oh my!) are known to take them down. Elk also provide food for many other, smaller predators that go after weaker calves or those that feed off old carcasses.

References:

Coughenour, Michael B., and Francis J. Singer. “Elk population processes in Yellowstone National Park under the policy of natural regulation.” Ecological Applications 6.2 (1996): 573-593.

Griffin, Kathleen A., et al. “Neonatal mortality of elk driven by climate, predator phenology and predator community composition.” Journal of Animal Ecology 80.6 (2011): 1246-1257.

Hebblewhite, Mark, and Daniel H. Pletscher. “Effects of elk group size on predation by wolves.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 80.5 (2002): 800-809.

Popp, Jesse N., et al. “A century of elk restoration in eastern North America.” Restoration Ecology 22.6 (2014): 723-730.

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