Elk on a Shelf Above Echo Canyon

March 30, 2023

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Photographer: Ray Boren

Summary Author: Ray Boren

While driving out of the tiny rural town of Echo, at the mouth of Utah’s Echo Canyon, I glanced upward along a steep, red-orange cliff and noticed something moving on a high terrace, as shown in the photo above: Two mature and still fully-antlered Rocky Mountain bull elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni, aka Cervus canadensis nelsoni), grazing in the late-afternoon winter sunlight. Soon a third appeared.

The bottom photo, taken with a telephoto lens, captures one of the trio in a majestic pose. One might assume the elk is bugling, as males do during the fall breeding season. But this was in mid-winter, and I heard nothing echoing in Echo Canyon. In fact, the bull, its head moving up and down, appeared to be using those long, pointy antlers to scratch a back itch. This is also the time of year that male elk begin to shed those antlers. As a friend suggests, maybe the big fellow was trying to dislodge the rack and get that weight off his head.

Rocky Mountain elk, or wapiti (literally, “white rump”) as they are also known from the Native American Shawnee language, are one of six elk subspecies in North America, and the only type in Utah, according to Wild Aware Utah, a multi-organization education program. Utah elk spend the summer in high mountain aspen forests, where they find both forage and shelter. For winter they migrate to lower slopes and valleys, and often forage on south-facing slopes — as in these photographs. In such places the sun melts snow more quickly, giving them access to edible shrubs.

The photos, taken on February 18, 2023, also illustrate the vicinity’s thick, coarse Echo Canyon conglomerate and Henefer formation rock. The reddish sedimentary sandstones and mudstones here, where Echo Canyon meets the Weber River’s Weber Canyon, incorporate pebbles, rocks and boulders of many sizes. The layers date to the Late Cretaceous, and can form impressive cliffs — up to 1,500 feet thick (457 meters) — as well as curiously weathered hoodoos and towers. 


Echo, Utah Coordinates: 40.9779, -111.4413

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