Elk NetworkElk Antler Size Throughout History

Conservation | September 20, 2017

We recently had the following question come into us through Facebook fan Piers P.My friend and I are in a debate about elk antler size throughout history. Were elk antlers bigger back before Americans populated north America? Say 1750. Were there 400 inch elk back then? I said yes. He thinks that elk conservation has grown elk big recently within the past hundred years and the were no +400 inch elk before elk conservation. Could you help with this question? We once again fell back on our resident biologist and Director of Private Lands Stewardship, Tom Toman. This response is strictly conjecture on my part. I could answer more definitely if I was present in 1750 but that is a bit before my time!

From a logical standpoint there should have some super big bulls before the era of Conservation (1900’s and early 2000’s) since there are a couple of things that usually lead to bigger antler growth.

The first would be genetics. As we all know some bulls are destined for trophy class while others just simply will never make it. The genetics they got from their father (sire) and mother (dam) make that determination by the way the genes are passed on from one generation to another. The second is nutrition. If there are good groceries, both body size and antler growth will reflect excellent conditions for the bull. The third is age. A bull does not get large massive antlers (typically) unless he gets some age on him. All of those things were probably present prior to Europeans settling the country. So it would make sense that 400+ bulls were found throughout elk country which was a heck of a lot bigger than it is today.

The only problem with that theory is that magnum bulls are typically not found in museum mounts nor were they found in attics and lofts in barns so that they could be measured once the scoring systems were developed by Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young. In fact, when I was a young guy, the world record typical elk was a bull killed in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming by an unknown hunter in 1890 and I believe was found in a barn. It scored 441 6/8 BCC score. That bull was replaced as number one in 1961 by a Colorado bull that was killed in 1899 by John Plute and measured 442 3/8. Those two bulls were clearly killed before the conservation era which started shortly after. But I would point out that those seem to be the only two of that category.

As you know, elk antlers don’t change much after the bull dies, so there should have been more winter kill, cripple loss bulls and others that would have been found from earlier days or even in archaeological digs. They don’t seem to exist. However, here comes the argument for modern day conservation contributing to bigger bulls. I could not find my copy of the BCC record book so I had to resort to a BUGLE article by our very own P.J. Delhomme in 2011. It can be found here.

The bulls in the record book from the 1900’s and 2000’s all could have resulted from good genetics, excellent nutrition and age. We know some states have selected a few trophy management areas while managing the rest of the state for good bulls with more opportunity to hunt than the trophy areas. Most areas known for large trophy sized bulls seem to come from areas where hunter numbers are limited by licenses issued or that are found on private land with limited access. Limiting hunters means less hunting pressure and more opportunity for bulls to escape the hunters and live another year.

For most bulls, extra years can mean larger antlers if the nutrition holds up and the previous winter was not too severe. We often see less antler growth after really tough winters as it take quite a bit of energy to regain body conditions which steals some energy that would normally go to antler growth.

I am not very good at arguing both sides of an argument so I will have to come off the fence. My own thoughts are that we will see more large bulls under good elk management and conservation than without. Sorry I could not be more definitive.

Photo courtesy of Steve Beer.