What do elk eat?

Elk are grazers and eat a variety of vegetation. Elk will eat grass, shrubs and believe it or not they sometimes even eat small trees. Elk diet often changes with the season of the year.

In northern Idaho, where I live, elk are fond of many different kinds of grass. Some of these grasses are blue bunch wheatgrass, clover, elk sedge, mountain brome, orchard grass and Idaho fescue. Elk like the tender new shoots when they start to grow in the spring. Later in the summer as the grass starts to dry out, they switch to forbs (small plants that grow in the forest). These plants grow in moist areas of the forest and stay green much longer than grass. Some of these forbs are miners lettuce, goldthread and tall blue bell.

As fall and winter approach, the forbs die out and get covered by snow. At that time elk make a switch to shrubs and trees. They like the leaf buds since this is the most nutritious part. When elk eat this way biologists call it "browsing." Some shrubs and trees that elk like in Northern Idaho are elderberry, redstem ceanothus, mountain ash, willow and cedar.

Because elk can eat many different kinds of plants, they can make their home in many different areas. Elk live in all kinds of forests from hardwoods on the East Coast to evergreens in the West. Some elk even live in areas where there is no forest at all.

Generally, elk like areas where there is lots of open country for them to roam. Most elk in the United States are found in the Rocky Mountains, but there are some elk herds that live in eastern states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Elk generally don't do very well in areas where there are lots of people or human activity.

Thanks for asking!

Harry Jageman, Wildlife Biologist
Palouse Ranger District, Potlatch, Idaho
Clearwater National Forest