What do elk eat?
Elk are herbivores capable of consuming diverse diets of grasses, forbs, and shrubs. The term forb refers to any broad-leaved herbaceous plant that is not a grass. Forbs are an important dietary component of elk and other wild ungulates and have high nutritional value during the growing season. Elk eat green grasses and forbs during the growing season but also commonly eat cured grasses and forbs during the winter. When elk and other ungulates eat shrubs, they typically select the tips of branches which comprise the current year’s growth and offer the most nutrients. It may be easiest to explain elk diets by contrasting them to those of some other common herbivores. Deer, for example, are often referred to as browsers because much of their diet is comprised of shrubs. Cattle and sheep, on the other hand, are commonly referred to as grazers because they consume large quantities of grass. The distinction between deer and livestock arises from physiological differences in the proportional sizes of their rumens (i.e., stomach) and in their associated digestive strategies. Elk are considered intermediate to deer and cattle/sheep, which means elk are better adapted to grass diets than deer yet are capable of consuming relatively large amounts of browse. Therefore, elk should be capable of meeting their nutritional requirements across a greater spectrum of habitat conditions than deer or livestock as long as adequate forage quantities are available. This basic knowledge of elk diets is useful for understanding why elk occur where they do. At a broad scale, elk can successfully occupy a diversity of habitats across Colorado because they are foraging generalists and are adaptable. You can find elk just about anywhere in Colorado west of Interstate 25. At a finer scale, we expect to find more elk where there is a greater abundance of grasses, forbs and shrubs, collectively referred to as “understory” in forested habitats. In sagebrush and mountain shrub habitats, understory typically refers to the abundance of grasses and forbs only. Using this information, you can begin to visualize more-productive and less-productive habitats based on the amount of vegetation covering the ground. For example, in conifer forests, elk seek out and feed in recently-burned areas, areas with beetle killed over-story, or small clear-cuts because these sites provide greater amounts of quality forage than the understory of a mature forest. When mature trees have been removed, grass, forb, and shrub species capitalize on the released nutrients and dominate the site until the forest regenerates. In such instances, elk utilize the mature forest primarily for cover and move into the openings to forage, typically during morning and evening. As a general rule, habitat types with greater understory will be preferred by elk.