Everything you’ve always wanted to know about elk (and probably more)!
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During the September-October mating season, bull elk stage a spectacular play. The characteristic rutting call of bulls can be heard from just before dusk to dawn.
Head into Rocky Mountain National Park and stop at Horseshoe Park. There in the early evening, you will find local volunteer guides who provide insight and information.
The typical bugle of the bull elk is a surprising, distinctive sound that begins deep and resonant, and becomes a high pitched squeal before ending in a succession of grunts.
As you stand in Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park or Upper Beaver Meadows you may hear one or more bulls bugling and you’ll notice the variations in their calls.
The sounds of elks bugling overlap and reverberate against the rock outcroppings and hills. Their bugling call echoes across meadows – it’s a haunting and primeval sound.
The experience will astound you. You will be reminded that you are standing on sacred ground — where the first peoples of America stood and the same echoes of nature filled the autumn, night air.
You may be fortunate enough to see a bull elk rounding up his “harem” in one of the National Park’s meadows, or in town on our golf courses and lawns.
Bulls have various levels of experience in herding. Some are “studs” and others are wannabes.
The stud is the bull that is clearly in command. There may be other competitors nearby, but they can’t compete with the mature bull’s display of antlers and his bellowing bugle.
This big guy gathers his cows with apparent ease. Often other bulls stand on the sidelines, watching with obvious frustration. Even those who have managed to corner a cow or two watch helplessly as their prospects evade them and run toward a growing assembly of cows, yearlings and calves which have gathered near another bull.
You may also notice a bull with broken antlers or half a rack — the result of competitive battles between bulls.
Is it Sparring or a Fight?
During the Fall Elk Rut majestic bull elk are challenging each other for breeding rights to the females.
Every rut season plenty of people say they saw an elk fight, where in reality it was just a sparring match.
The best way to tell is if the two involved are the largest bulls in the area and they are very close to cows (female elk). Then you likely have seen a fight.
Fights have dust flying, it happens fast and it’s over faster.
Sparring starts off slow with slow movement of the animals’ antlers. It starts with one bull presenting his rack then the other accepting, then the sparring has begun.
Usually a sparring match ends just as it began, very slowly.
Wildlife Watching Etiquette
Elk gather in the open meadows and are easily visible when left undisturbed.
During the elk rut, please do not venture into the park’s meadows between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. and stay on roadways and designated trails. Look for postings alerting you to areas that have been closed. You can easily sight and watch elk from the roadsides.
Please remember that wildlife are the natives in this area and that we are the visitors!
Wildlife are very keen on “personal space.” In other words, they’re happier if you keep your distance.
Bring your binoculars or telephoto lens to get a close up view of these majestic creatures. If your presence causes the elk to move away, then you are too close. Within the park, you may be cited for harassment of wildlife if your actions affect the behavior of an animal in any way.
As soon as you park, turn off your car lights and engine. Shut car doors quietly and speak softly. Don’t use headlights or flashlights to illuminate or entice wildlife.
Enjoy your not-too-close encounter with our native elk!
Early June is when most of the babies of RMNP arrive. After birth the elk calf spends most of its time hiding in grass or bushes and following its mother as she grazes.
Nature is momentarily kind during the elks’ first week of life – the baby doesn’t produce a scent for nearly a week to help allude predators.
This state is short lived though, as June is a calf’s most dangerous time when predators like coyotes are prowling the edges of elk herds looking for a baby hiding in the grass.
Generally the mothers form very small herds and the calves start playing with other calves, learning how elk life works.
From birth until mid-July the calf will drink about a gallon of milk a day gaining two to three pounds a day.
Life gets even harder just a few weeks, or sometimes only days after birth, as the elk herds start to move up to the tundra and the calf has to hike miles, gaining 5,000 feet of elevation, to start enjoying the tundra’s sweet grass.
Luckily, each calf has plenty of babysitters with the rest of the elk herd watching after them.
Parents, when your child whines about a walk around Bear Lake, just remind them “at least you aren’t a baby elk”!
August – a month of transition from Summer into Fall
The juvenile animals are starting to head out on their own.
Up by tree line the Elk are searching for various plants with high calcium and potassium levels to help solidify their antlers.
Antlers are roughly 50% protein, 30% calcium and 20% potassium, and the last month prior to the velvet coming off is when they finally turn into hard bone for their fall fights.
Generally around August 15th you’ll see bull elk loosing their velvet. Keep your eyes peeled for the elk’s fresh white and sometimes bloody antlers.
Strange Food for Elk
Beyond their dramatic color, aspen play an important role in the ecosystem as food for elk.
RMNP’s aspen have been heavily over-grazed by elk in the past, so many of the lower groves are now protected by fences. Thankfully, with the exclusion fences in place we will enjoy the yearly show of aspen gold for centuries to come.
The Gold Banner is one of the most common flowers in the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park, and in Estes Park. It starts blooming in the lower elevations as early as April, but the best displays are usually in early to mid June.
This beauty is a relative of peas, and is slightly poisonous which helps to explain why you find it everywhere elk like to graze. Elk generally leave it alone until later in the season when the toxicity declines. They can take a few bites, but most blossoms live long and happy lives, adding stunning color to our June.