Elk, or wapiti, is the second largest species within the deer family. These light-colored deer can grow up to 9 feet tall with antlers and weigh between 300 and 1,100 pounds. These majestic creatures were once in much of North America, but were killed and driven to remote locations.
Today, you’ll find most of their population on the west side of the country, including Texas. Discover the history of elk in Texas, how many are left and where they live. Plus, learn about moose hunting regulations in the Lone Star State.
History of Elk in Texas
Many believe that Texas native elk only existed in a small area of the Guadalupe Mountains, but they originally lived on the plains along with bison, antelope, and white-tailed deer. The earliest record of people encountering elk in Texas was in 1601.
New Mexico Governor Don Juan de Oñate explored the land northeast of Santa Fe. He encountered these creatures drinking from a river and described them as deer-like and “as big as great horses”. Between 1600 and 1900, many accounts place moose from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley, confirming that moose are native to Texas. Furthermore, rock art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands features moose from more than 4,000 years ago.
At some point in history, sport and commercial hunting led to the near extinction of moose. And by the twentieth century, native moose numbers had declined significantly throughout the state. In 1928, 44 elk from the Black Hills of South Dakota were released into McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains. This species multiplied rapidly and soon inhabited the mountain ranges. In the early 1990s, migrating elk formed herds in the nearby Glass, Wylie, Davis, and Eagle Mountains. Moose currently roam free in Texas, and some can thrive in high enclosures.
Where do moose live in Texas?
Each exists in five herds; Guadalupe Mountains, Glass Mountains, Wylie Mountains, Davis Mountains and Eagle Mountains. Those counties consist of Culberson, Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Hudspeth. People have been spotting moose in the Texas Panhandle near Dallam County in recent years.
Before humans inhabited most of the country, moose inhabited the plains in the winter and forested areas in the summer. They would freely migrate from one habitat to another each season. Due to economic and agricultural activities, moose are forced to reside in mountainous areas all year round. A lack of geographic range, especially during winter, can present problems in increasing or maintaining populations.
How many elk are left in Texas?
Experts believe 1,500 to 2,000 moose live in free-ranging herds in West Texas. This region has a healthy population of Rocky Mountain moose and there are many high fenced farms in the Hill Country. The moose that originally lived in Texas is said to be a subspecies of Merriam’s moose, an extinct species from the southwestern United States. But there is some debate on this matter, including where the current species comes from. Some believe they are an extension of the Guadalupe herd, while others believe they are natural immigrants from New Mexico.
Rocky Mountain Elk
This subspecies of moose lives in the Rocky Mountains, including adjacent mountain ranges in western North America. Rocky Mountain moose spend their winters most often in lower elevations, such as open forests and swamps. During the summer they migrate to higher elevations forests and basins.
These moose can live in a variety of habitats, but in Texas they are mainly found in the mountain ranges to the west. Winters bring them to lower mountain areas and they will stay at higher elevations in summer. You may see individuals come off the mountain and into grassland during the day, but return to their preferred habitat at night.
Like every other creature on Earth, moose are affected by climate change. Global warming means that herds stay at higher altitudes for longer and can even extend their seasonal range in winter. Especially in colder places like Wyoming, herds of Rocky Mountain moose can quickly increase in numbers because their predators can’t use the deep snow to hunt and sneak up on prey.
In 2010, researchers diagnosed Rocky Mountain moose with a condition called chronic wasting disease (CWD), or zombie deer disease. It is a progressive and always fatal disease that causes behavioral changes, weight loss, lack of coordination, confusion, pneumonia and death. Not enough research has been done to determine whether these moose can spread CWD to humans. An epidemiological study concluded, “As a precautionary measure, hunters should avoid eating deer and elk tissues known to harbor the CWD agent (e.g., brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes) from areas where CWD has been identified. “
Texas Elk Season and Hunting Regulations
Humans can hunt elk year round in Texas; there is no closed season. There are also few moose hunting regulations in the state. Hunters in Texas can buy a license without a prescription, choose their weapon, and even hunt during the peak of rut (mating season). While it may sound good to those who participate in the sport, some believe that moose hunting requires more significant restrictions.
In 1997, lawmakers passed a special action declaring Texas moose as exotic animals. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has reasonable control over game species. The department can easily manage its population during the hunting season. But when an animal is classified as ‘exotic’, there is no protection. In Texas, people can hunt moose whenever they want, regardless of their population numbers.
Groups are pushing for change to push lawmakers to reclassify Texan elk as a game species and end widespread killing on public and private land. Moose numbers may be abundant now, but it wasn’t long ago that native moose species became extinct due to overhunting and little to no regulation.