2015-03-07 / Outdoors

Mother Nature calling shots for state’s elk herd

Elk are known for their regal appearance, but in March it all goes haywire.

Disheveled winter coats, bulls shedding antlers and growing new ones, and shortened ears that suffered frostbite over the winter can cause an animal to look pretty scruffy.

The winter coat of an elk helps the animal withstand temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero. Even so, exposed ears can be damaged. The hair on the ears will regrow – twice a year – but the ears remain shortened.

Right now, the furry coats of our Pennsylvania elk are harboring plenty of burrs, debris, and parasites. These old, worn coats will gradually be shed in furry clumps between now and June and replaced by short-haired summer coats.

A profound metamorphosis takes place with antlers. As soon as the new antlers in velvet begin to branch upward, the bull begins to look as if he is wearing a crown.

Elk antlers are said to be the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom.

The posture and demeanor of a bull changes when antlers are shed. Antlers are a major determinant of rank in herd hierarchy. Once they’re shed, there is a time of limbo when even a dominant animal cannot spar or compete with a smaller antlered bull.

But as soon as the new velvet antlers start to sprout, and the younger bulls shed their headgear, the natural order resumes.

The weather in March can be changeable, and the ground is usually wet and soggy from the winter thaw. But the warmer temperatures and wet conditions bring the new growth of grasses and forbs, rich in calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, sulfur and iron.

Large quantities of minerals and nutrients are necessary for elk in the springtime, not only to help bulls grow big antlers again, but for the development of the calves in the third trimester of pregnancy. Elk will seek the lowland grassy fields that green-up first.

March may seem to be a bleak time of year, but it is a necessary part of the seasonal journey of the elk along the way to sleek new coats, large antlers in velvet and healthy newborn calves.

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I’ve written before about the challenge of shed-hunting, which is the hobby of scouring the elk range for dropped antlers.

Antlers are often found between bedding areas and feeding areas, so scouting is important.

Larger bulls in their prime (ages 7-12) tend to shed their antlers first, as early as February, and other bulls will shed sometime during March. Some spike bulls and raghorns may retain their skimpy antlers into April.

Some shed hunters hover along the roadside for hours, scouting for bulls and using binoculars to search for sheds.

The mixture of private and public land on the elk range can complicate shed hunting. You may wish to follow an elk trail on public land, but it’s important to avoid trespassing on private land.

Antlers might be easier to find on south slopes. The sun melts the snow off of those areas first. Elk often lie on south-facing slopes.

Whether you ever find an elk shed or not, taking a hike or a ride in the beautiful Pennsylvania forests can be a worthwhile experience, offering physical and spiritual renewal.

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