Judging by sheer quantity consumed, grass would appear to be the favored food. Elk gorge on grass year-round where it’s available, getting choosier about which kind during the summer when grasses are most abundant. Bluegrasses, wheatgrasses, bromegrasses, bunchgrasses and fescue are all popular picks.
But who among us would say our favorite food is the staple of our overall diet? There are far less abundant plants than grass that elk seem to relish with the same gusto that we humans hold for desserts. One can imagine the delight an elk, emaciated from a long winter, must take in finding a meadow of protein-packed forbs such as clover, an elk favorite wherever it’s found. Elk also eagerly devour sticky geranium, streambank globemallow, Rocky Mountain iris, mountain bluebells, pokeweed fleeceflower, American licorice, beargrass, yellowhair crazyweed, fireweed, silky lupine, common cocklebur and alfalfa, just to name a few. It varies by the candy selection of each unique location.
Spring and early summer also bring on an influx of budding woody plants such as aspen, cottonwood and willow—loaded with protein and seemingly delicious. Elk also feast on cow-parsnip and even the occasional mushroom. By September and October, green becomes a hard color to find in most of elk country. But certain plants react to the first hard frosts of fall by producing a blast of sugar, as kale and brussel sprouts do in our gardens. Suddenly Oregon cherry, prairie sageworts, and alpine forget-me-nots are treasured plants for elk looking to put on fat before the snow flies. Their winter diet of dry grass and browse is back at the helm by December. Come February, elk will eat whatever they can find, gnawing on aspen bark, cattails and other back-of-the-cupboard items they won’t touch most of the year. It’sthe elk equivalent to beans and rice.