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Taos wildlife: Elk

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You don’t see certain critters out in the wild very often because they are naturally skittish or because they live off-the-beaten path. But one animal that does make its appearance around these parts — and typically in large herds — is the elk.

Only out-sized by the moose, elk is one of the largest species in the deer family and one of the largest mammals in North America. On average, bulls weigh 700 pounds, are 8-feet-long from nose to tail and 5 feet at the shoulder. Only male elk have antlers. Females (cows) typically weigh 500 pounds, are 6.5-feet-long from nose to tail and 4.5 feet at the shoulder. In the fall, winter and spring, their coats are a light tan.

Before 1900, there were two subspecies of elk in New Mexico: the Rocky Mountain elk and the Merriam's elk. Today, mostly the Rocky Mountain elk exists in New Mexico and that is in large part to the state and individuals who made a concerted effort to protect the animals between 1910 and 1966.

According to the New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish: “Restoration was necessary because relentless hunting pressure occurring late in the 19th century extirpated this grand animal from New Mexico. The meat of elk is as fine as beef, and they were killed to feed the waves of soldiers, miners and ranchers who contributed to the occupation of this state after the Civil War.

"The slaughter resulted in the extinction of the Merriam’s subspecies of elk and the extirpation of the Rocky Mountain subspecies. Today, Rocky Mountain elk once again are abundant in Northern New Mexico, and they grace the valleys and mountains of the southern half of the state where once the Merriam’s roamed.”

Elk typically make their home in the mountainous areas of the state and particularly in the Moreno Valley near Red River, Eagle Nest and Angel Fire. Deepening snows in the mountains force elk to migrate to lower elevations where forage such as grasses, shrubs, tree bark and twigs can be found. Some of the state’s other popular places for elk viewing is the Valle Vidal on the Carson National Forest in Unit 55 and the Río Grande del Norte National Monument near Questa.

“Of all the big game found in the West, the elk stands supreme in a class by himself,” wrote Thomas P. Gable, New Mexico Game and Fish Warden, in a 1909-1911 report.

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