How big is big?

Written by Jim Ward for The Observer December 30, 2011 08:18 pm

Elk are amazing animals. Indeed, they are one of the fastest growing critters on our continent. JIM WARD photo
Elk are amazing animals. Indeed, they are one of the fastest growing critters on our continent. JIM WARD photo

Other than a couple of cow hunts, most elk seasons in Northeast Oregon have closed.

Many hunters have shifted their focus to such things as football or New Year’s resolutions.

Hardcore hunters, though, are still at it. For these guys, hunting season goes on all-year-round. I’m not speaking of off-season poachers. I’m referring to those guys who re-live last season’s elk hunt with family and friends every time the three-letter word comes up. Oftentimes a little more “color” is added to the story each time it’s presented.

It’s not uncommon for the dimensions of last season’s bull to raise an eyebrow or maybe a few pant legs. Photos are never taken of these monsters, and any video footage is always too blurry to share.

Of course, the “one that got away” often resembles the proportions of the Pleistocene’s Iris elk — a beast that stood 7-foot high at the shoulder with antlers 15 feet across.

The size of elk — especially big bulls — is the subject of more campfire conversations than scientific surveys.

In truth, there really isn’t a whole lot of data on the live weight of elk. Hunters usually don’t include a set of scales in their backpacks.

Some data does show that, on average, Roosevelt elk tend to be heavier than Rocky Mountain elk, and the farther north one goes the larger the animal. One-thousand pound bulls are relative to Boone and Crockett antlers — both are possible, but very rare. A bull plowing through a stand of lodgepole, with antlers tilted back, appears much larger than he does back at camp hanging on the meat pole.

The two columns in the chart that accompanies this story depict the weights and ages of Rocky Mountain bull elk from two separate areas.

The column on the left includes data from the Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona — gathered during a fall hunting season.

The column on the right comes from a survey of elk measured from the Starkey Experimental Forest west of La Grande in the Blue Mountains. In all fairness, it should be noted that the Oregon elk weights were measured in late winter after antler drop. Arizona data includes the number of antler points on each animal.

Although this is a small sampling, due to space constraints, the data is a fairly accurate average of the hundreds of animals that have been recorded at both Starkey and the reservation. Not one has tipped the scales at 1,000 pounds, and most of these animals were mature enough, biologically, to do so.

Another common tall tale that often comes out around the campfire or down at the local pub is antler size. Oftentimes, the width between the teller’s outstretched arms tends to be in direct proportion to said teller’s recent intake of brewskies. “The bull’s antlers stretched 2 feet past the animal’s rump” tends to be the rule of thumb with many story tellers.

The world’s highest-scoring, typical bull elk in the Boone and Crockett Club’s record book has a main beam length of 56 inches. And that’s following the tape measure around each curve of the antler. A bull further down the list, that had shorter point length, did have a beam length of 66 inches.

But, even with that, those beams are a long way from protruding beyond the animal’s tail bone. One only needs to look at simple elk anatomy. A mature elk can reach up to 7 feet from nose to tail. Do the math.

In truth, elk are amazing animals. Indeed, they are one of the fastest growing critters on our continent. A calf elk will grow from a pillow-sized morsel to a 250-pound semi-adult in just five months. They’ll reach 80 percent of their skeletal growth in 18 months.

They dazzle us with their majesty and their tenacity. I guess some of us just get a little more dazzled than others. Or, perhaps, there really are a few Irish elk still lurking in the dense thickets and deep canyons of the Blues.