Wapiti, often called Elk, are members of the deer family as are Moose and Caribou. Their closest relatives are European Red Deer. They were named Elk several centuries ago by Europeans arriving in North America. This large deer reminded them of the European Elk. Applying common names gets confusing because the animal that Europeans call Elk is the same species that North Americans call Moose. Wapiti is the Shawnee name for them and roughly translates to “white rump.” Since Wapiti are a type of deer, one would presume the males would be called bucks; not so, they are stags or bulls. The female Wapiti is a hind, not a doe, and the young are calves, not fawns. For most of the year the stags remain apart from the hinds and calves but in the autumn all heck breaks loose and it is called The Rut! The stags begin bugling and try to assemble a harem of hinds for their use. Stags frantically run back and forth because some disgruntled hinds try to run off and other stags covet the hinds. Stags joust and injuries occur.
Wapiti are big animals compared to the “dainty” Mule Deer. At 750 pounds (340 kg) stags are over twice the size of a Mule Deer buck. They have long legs. One winter’s evening I turned the car into a lane and surprised 20 or so stags. Though less than a car’s length away, we were not exactly eye-to-eye because sitting in my little car I was level with their bellies.
The herd of Wapiti in the south Okanagan Valley summer in the mountains east of Penticton and Naramata. Most people aren’t aware of their existence. They winter from Okanagan Mountain Park south to Penticton’s landfill area. The Wapiti are infrequently seen because they spend their days in the hills where they prefer forests with open areas. At night they troop down to lake level, presumably for water, when the creeks and ponds are frozen. This creates a traffic hazard on Naramata Road between dusk and dawn. Impacts with vehicles are probably second to hunting when it comes to mortality. Several winters ago the herd numbered about 200 but most sightings are of smaller groups.
Vegetarians, Wapiti primarily graze on grasses and herbaceous plants but browse a wide variety of trees and shrubs. In this area some preferred native foods are Ceanothus (snowbrush), Ponderosa pine, willow, poplar and maple. When food is scare and Wapiti are numerous, we have noticed browsing on Oregon grape, snowberry, bearberry and foliose lichens. Wapiti are fond of apples and can do a lot of damage in an orchard. I don’t know if they like grapes! One recent winter, before a Sutherland Road orchard was fully fenced, a herd of 85 Wapiti got in, dined away the night and then found themselves “trapped.” As dawn approached they got a bit panicky. Alert neighbours went to the rescue, opened gates and watched in wonder as the magnificent beasts filed out. As more and more properties are fenced there are fewer and fewer corridors for animals to reach food and water.
During winter 2008-09 there was evidence that a large number of Wapiti wintered on land between Campbell Mountain and Riddle Road. This area is slated for development which will put more restrictions on their food supply and movements. A positive result of the Okanagan Mountain fire is the renewed abundance of Ceanothus, willows, and other woody bushes so we hope the herd will gradually relocate. Penticton’s loss is Naramata’s gain.
The Okanagan Wapiti have an interesting history. They are not native to this area but in 1928 a couple of rail cars of Wapiti from the Alberta Rockies arrived in Penticton on a barge. The cars, switched to the tracks, headed east for the Kettle River valley. Unfortunately a wheel bearing burned out and the cars were shuttled onto the Adra siding near Naramata. The Wapiti were released from the cattle cars because there was no way to feed and water them. The animals went forth and multiplied, and some years later began damaging the orchards on the Naramata Bench. A round-up took place and corralled Wapiti, obviously not all of them, were trucked to Princeton.
The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club’s next meeting is February 25 in the United Church, 696 Main St., Penticton. It is the Annual General Meeting and the doors open at 5:30pm with a potluck supper being served at 6:00 pm. Then members will entertain with a show-and-tell or by showing pictures of natural history events. For details contact Glenda at 250-462-7500.