The elk population in the United States today is well over 1,000,000 animals, with the population growing fairly steadily since a population count was made in 1975, at which time the estimated population was just over 500,000. Even though a population count taken every five years seems to suggest a constant increase in numbers, the elk population is, like most things in nature, somewhat cyclical.
For a herd to either grow in numbers, or sustain an existing number of animals, supporting habitat needs to be there. Most of the habitat suitable for elk is found in the Rocky Mountain region, so it is little wonder that the Rocky Mountain states generally have the largest populations. Of course there are those factors which can cause the elk population to decrease at times. One is loss of habitat. Loss of habitat is very often caused by human development of the land, but in the case of the elk, forest fires play a major role.
When forest land has burned and lies barren for a short time, knapweed often takes over. This noxious weed is difficult to eradicate, and crowds out the types of vegetation that would normally support a herd of elk. Severe winters often take a toll on herds, as do predators, primarily wolves. The reintroduction of wolves into certain regions has been accompanied by a reduction in the elk population in those regions. The combination of a severe winter, and a presence of predators, presents the elk with a double whammy. Hunting is another factor contributing to population loss. The good news is that the elk are a long ways from being an endangered species, quite the opposite in fact.
There are four species of elk in the United States, the Rocky Mountain elk, the Roosevelt Elk, the Tule Elk, and the Manitoba Elk. 90% of the elk are of the Rocky Mountain species. The Roosevelt elk accounts for most of the remaining 10% of the elk population. The number of Tule elk, found in California, numbers under 4,000 animals, and the Manitoba species, found in a couple of the eastern states, numbers under 1,000.
Colorado is the state with the largest elk population (290,000), followed by Montana (160,000), Idaho (110,000) and Wyoming (106,000). New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington have smaller, yet sizable populations. These numbers are for Rocky Mountain elk. The bulk of the Roosevelt elk population is in Oregon (63,000) and Washington (36,000). A portion of Washington's population resides in Olympic National Park, where the species was introduced in the early 1900's.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is the organization to go to for all kinds of information about elk, including elk population. The Foundation sponsors a number of activities directed towards protecting and preserving elk habitat, often working with other outdoors organizations, such as the Back Country Horsemen. The RMEF has a number of chapters across the United States.