Kaye’s Corner: Elk Bugling

Kaye Sullivan

MEEKER I Recently while in Yellowstone, we had the awesome experience of watching bull elk fight for their harem. Safely seated on our deck across the valley and river, we could follow the show with binoculars and spotting scopes. 

Although we have many times listened to the elk bugle and watched them spar, every opportunity to witness the true story of how these magnificent animals prepare for the season ahead has been special.

During this recent event, the largest bull had to fight off two competing bulls. It was almost comical that he often couldn’t decide whether to herd the cows or take on his competitors. The females split in two groups making roundup even harder. He would have benefited from a good sheepdog.

The bull raced around and the cows ran, then everyone rested and then it started all over again, up and down the hill. Finally, the cows started walking away on their own, as if to say, “We’re done with this for today.” The chief bull followed, despite only corralling about half of the available women. 

By then, it was nearly dark and we couldn’t see if the “vanquished elk” gave up. But we had a good hour of entertainment. These critters did not return across the valley for the rest of our Yellowstone visit but we were happy for one fun show.

Equally exciting was a recent trip up-river to Trappers Lake with our New York City visitors. We could see about 100 elk and hear the bulls’ boasting noises. Our friends had never heard bugling and were astonished at their squeaky, insistent calls. 

Some of the herd cooled off in the river, most munched on grass, and periodically the elk chased the cows. This event was more tame, but because we needed to return to Meeker before sunset, we don’t know if interactions got crazy later. 

One time when my parents were visiting from Indiana, we watched a giant elk herd march across Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. A huge bull with outstanding antlers led the parade followed by about 100 cows and bulls, emerging one by one. Western entertainment doesn’t get much better than this.

When we lived near Genesee Park just west of Denver, elk would often commandeer the neighborhood. Our German shepherd wanted to defend our property, but Jay wouldn’t let him outside lest he get kicked by the much larger animals.

One time two bulls were intensely sparring right across from our house. Crash, bang they fought like crazed competitors. We observed from the indoors and marveled at the determination of these males to win dominion. 

The sparring can be very intense and can cause the males’ antlers to be broken. I wonder how many other species fight and work so hard to acquire a mate and thus a family? Mature bulls have the advantage of experience and weight over their younger, inexperienced competitors. But at some point, they age, become slower, less agile, and the younger guys take over. So the story of life goes.

Presumedly as long as elk have inhabited the earth, similar behaviors of the rut, bugling, and sparring in the fall have continued to establish an elk family unit and continuation of their species. I say, good luck and we can’t wait to see your babies next year.

By KAYE SULLIVAN – Special to the Herald Times