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Learn the difference between elk, white-tails, and mule deer.

Elk | Mule Deer | White-Tailed Deer

"When do the deer turn into elk?" That’s not a joke waiting for a punch line. It’s a question that tourists often ask the rangers at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. The answer, of course, is that mule deer and elk are distinct species within the family Cervidae, which also includes the smaller white-tailed deer. But even for experienced hikers who realize that deer don’t undergo a metamorphosis, these three antlered ruminants can look similar from a distance. Here’s how to tell them apart.

Cervus elaphus
Larger than all other deer species except moose, bull elk can reach 700 pounds.

More than one million elk populate the western United States and Canada. Elk in the East are actually herds of Rocky Mountain elk reintroduced in the 1900s.

Elk move in large herds where open woodlands meet grassy meadows. After sheltering in forested valleys during winter, they climb to higher elevations in spring and summer for better browsing.

During the fall rut, when bulls battle to collect a harem of females, listen for bugling at dawn and sunset. The resonant honk can carry for miles–and ends in a high-pitched squeal.

Listen for bugling, or look for tree bark scrapes about five feet high. That’s where male elk rub their antlers to shed the velvet in late summer.

Large and heavy appearance, with rearward flare 4 feet wide; 1-8 forking tines per antler
Light-colored rump patches; 4- to 7-inch-long tail
Reddish, tawny-brown torso with dark brown head, neck, and snout

Elk | Mule Deer | White-Tailed Deer

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