The Coveted Elk Rut

The Elk Rut: desired by hunters, beloved by wildlife aficionados, coveted by photographers, and a thrill for all. Just what is the elk rut, you may wonder? I know I certainly did in the past. Now, I can say after a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in late September, it is something not to be missed. One of nature’s wondrous moments of the seasons, the elk rut typically occurs in fall. Most elk start moving around more in August, preparing for their rut through warmer weather. Bull elk scrape the ground, removing their antlers’ velvet coats to make ready for battle against competing bulls in the coming months. They mark their territory with urine in efforts of warding off other bulls. Raking their antlers along smaller trees, the bull strengthens their necks, awaiting fights with other bulls.

As hours of daylight decrease, testosterone levels surge in the bull elk, making them more aggressive, their size growing in nature, and raging with hormones.  While this occurs, the female cows also enter hormonal cycles, entering them into the estrous cycle. This cycle often begins in the early phase of the rut usually about early September, with only a few of the cows entering estrous.  This leads into the peak of the elk rut, lasting roughly 5 to 10 days, and happens mainly from an equal amount of daylight hours and night hours. The peak of the rut occurs close to the autumn equinox on the night of the new moon phase. A second estrous period occurs for younger cows during early October and possibly even in the early portions of November. However, nothing is quite as intense as the peak in September.

Estrous cycle releases an odor-filled pheromone into the air that triggers the bulls into their mating frenzy. Sometimes they resort to looking ridiculous and appear careless with their thinking. Some could say, typical to what they think a young man behaves like when in pursuit of a lady. While the bulls behave this way, the cows go about their normal routines throughout the day. In daytime, the elk stay more silent, bedding down with the occasional restless bull moving about in search for a cow potentially heard. Other bulls could move around in search of food or drink, remaining silent as they rest up. Yet, bulls feed during the rut much less than any other time of the year. Most of their time, instead, stays focused on rounding up cows and releasing pent-up aggression. Elk bulls also seek out wallows, or pools of water, throughout the rut days. It allows them to cover themselves in mud so they seem tougher and more dominant. The water and mud also spread the smell from their glands to their entire body while also allowing them to cool off after all their nightly activities.  The cows only stay in estrous for approximately twelve to fifteen hours. If they do not breed during that time, another estrous cycle occurs for them in about eighteen to twenty-eight days later.

More mature and dominant bulls known as the herd bulls can weigh about 1,100 pounds and often are found rounding up cows into groups through herding activity, creating their harem. The mature bulls also called the prime bulls and studs are about eight to ten years of age and remain fiercely dominant. These bulls lead their harems off for mating and the following gestation period of eight and a half months. Their antlers appear sharper and grander, creating massive displays of their strength along with their deeper and more bellowing bugle.

Other bulls, known as satellite bulls, hover around the outskirts of a herd, observing with increased frustration. These are the younger bulls that may round-up a few cows here and there, only to watch those cows run off to belong with a larger herd and be part of the stud’s harem. The two bulls engage in battles early in the peak rut period, seeking to establish dominance to territory and a harem. Sometimes witnesses note broken antlers or half a rack missing after battles between bulls.

Elk tend to find open meadows and stay visible so long as they are not disturbed during the elk rut season. Most of the activity occurs between the evening and morning hours. During these hours the trademark bugling of the bull elk emerges in abundance.

The bugle stands as a vocal advertisement from the bulls to the cows, allowing them to say all about their size, maturity, stamina, and more with the one bugle. Moving through a variety of sounds, the bugle starts deep and plentiful before growing in octaves to a high-pitched near squeal with several grunts following its high octaves. It is a sounds distinctly belonging to the bulls, aimed at communication with both bulls and cows. All bulls bugle to the cows while gathering them or if they chase after one. Herd bulls bugle at other bulls while showing their dominance over their own herd and satellite bulls sometimes bugle in a challenge to the more mature herd bulls. The sound of yelping or grunting that occurs results when the herd bulls are excited and mainly occur in interaction with the cows. While the grunting occurs, the bull spurts short bursts of urine.

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Certain sounds of the elk bugle and other noises of the rut reflect the sex, age, or reason for communication. A cohesion call shared between the sexes alerts one another of location. Another squeal results as an alarm squeal made by both cows and bulls if placed on alert. Often in the rut this squeal stays used by the younger bulls as the herd bulls run them away from the group. Satellite bulls spar abundantly during the rut as they make a sparring squeak.

The North American elk, called wapiti, once roamed through the Rocky Mountain area in abundance. White settlers hunted the elk in extreme number in the late 1890s until elk grew into endangered species. 49 elk were brought into the Rocky Mountain National Park region from Yellowstone National Park around 1913 and 1914 while their natural predators of the gray wolf and grizzly bears were removed as a threat. As a result, the elk population thrived once more, making Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park the perfect location for elk rut observation.

We visited Estes Park and the national park during our honeymoon September 22 through the 25. The elk bulls were keenly on display in the meadows and areas around, as were human observers. Awaking at 5:30am we were in the park by 7am. As the morning mist dissipated with the rising sun, the bulls strutted around, galloping about while others started to bed down for the day. Their bugles echoed throughout the park. Huge varieties of herds made for moving photographs and opportunities as their bulls stood proving their dominance, their breaths steaming from their nostrils as they roamed the land, displaying their grandeur. One thing is for sure: if you have not seen an elk rut in its peak, it is well worth the trip.

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