The history of the elk (Alces alces) in Europe is a moved one. The elk – or moose as it is called in North America – is distributed all over the boreal and temperate forest of Northern Europe, Asia and North America in several subspecies. During the Pleistocene, elks lived in most temperate forests of Europe, all the way down south to the Pyrenees and the Balkans. But starting from the middle ages, it was hunted to extinction in much of its original European distribution.
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Retreat to the north
Its only refuges in Europe were the vast woods of the north in Fennoscandia, Russia, the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the elk population has soared in Fennoscandia within the last decades. There are now 500 000 elks in Fennoscandia and the population is stable enough to hunt 200 000 individuals per year without a decline in these numbers. However, the situation is the opposite in European Russia. Here, the population declined by 50% between 1990 and 2002.
Elks have enchanted humans for centuries
In many other European countries, the elk has come and gone for centuries. Individuals have been spotted in Germany, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Croatia, but a stable population could never establish in either of these countries. The magnificence of this large deer has also sparked several attempts of reintroduction dating back to the 18th centuries. In feudal Europe, elks were transported through Europe as presents amongst rulers. And while some were set free, they could never found a population. More systematic projects have recently been done in Denmark, Scotland, and Slovakia. However, still no stable population has come of out them.
Let nature do its work
But it seems like nature is once again doing a better job than us. In Eastern Poland, a small population of only a few dozen elks has survived after World War II. Since then, the population has soared and spread all over Poland. Some estimations assume that there are now up to 20 000 elks in Poland.
In neighbouring Germany, the situation looks differently. For decades, single elks have wandered into Eastern Germany. Unfortunately, most left again quickly due to a lack of mates. But since 2008, there are signs that a viable population might estbalished in the state of Brandenburg. There are probably around five elks in Brandenburg and the first calf is on its way.
The species is coming. Eventually, we will have a stable population.
The elk will spread – if we accept it
The elk is a gentle giant that neither poses a threat to humans nor causes economic significant damage. Compared to millions of roe and red deer, their numbers will be futile in the foreseeable future. Hence, there is no need to worry about their appetite despite their size. However, they are a serious risk on roads. They can weigh up to 500kg and become up to 2m tall, so traffic accidents including them can cause serious harm. Accidents with elks are common across Fennoscandia, but the risk can be minimalized with appropiate measures.
The elk could become the next large mammal that naturally reclaims part of its old distribution in Europe. The wolf has proven that animals have the potential to spread in our modern world again, if we accept and support them. Elks are adaptable generalists and there are suitable habitats for them all over Central Europe. In a few decades, we might find the original megafauna of Europe in a lot of forests again, including wolves, bears, bisons and elks.