From Yellowstone Wildlife: A Watchers Guide 
by Todd Wilkinson.


September's Brassy Bugler

No other sound in Yellowstone portends the advent of winter like the rapturous wails of bull elk. Witnessing the rut, from the dramatic sparring of bulls locked in combat to the brooding courtship of females, is simply wildlife watching at its finest. 

Visitors may encounter elk (Cervus elphus nelsoni) virtually anywhere along the roadside in Yellowstone from April through October. These regal cervids are the most abundant large mammal species in the park, numbering about 31,000 individual animals during the summer. About 21,000 remain in the park through the winter. 

The words "elk" and "wapiti" (pronounced WOP-it-tee) are used interchangeably, for they refer to the same species of ungulate, or hooved animal. Wapiti, arguable the most poetic label, is a term handed down from Shawnee Indians that means "white rump," a description that aids in biological identification. 

The subspecies of elk inhabiting Yellowstone is known as the Rocky Montain elk, a massive, widely-distributed animal native to montane forests. At the end of the 19th centruy, elk were chiefly an animal of the West, but even then they nearly disappeared from the Rockies, because hunters killed them by the millions to sell their ivory-like teeth and keep them off agricultural lands used by cattle ranchers.

Yellowstone, with its prohibition on sport hunting, has long served as a valuable reservoir of elk, fueling repopulation efforts in several states surrounding the national park. 

Physically, elk are bigger than deer but smaller than a horse. Bulls, adorned by their infamoust antlers, achieve average weights ranging between 500 and 1,000 pounds, and stand up to five feet tall at the shoulderts. Cows, which bear no antlers, weigh between 400 and 600 pounds. The sexes can be distinguished by looking carefully at their coats. Bulls' coats are lighter, a difference that's especially noticeable during winter. 

The elk's head is darkish brown; the body from the shoulders to tailbone is tan; and the rump, of course, is creamy white. An elk walks on its hoves, so elk tracks resemble cloven half moons. Droppings take the form of flattened piles similar to cow dung when the elk are eating succulent foods, but change to pellets during the months when they subsist on dry food. 

Elk are spread across most of the park's interior during summer. In September and October, the breeding season commences. Bulls emanate high-pitched "bugles," adding a brassy sound to the national park that's as colorful as the changing leaves. Stomping their hoves and wielding antlers in furious combat, bulls demarcate their territory through sparring, and try to gather many cows into their harem. Four to five months later, the antlers are shed and the reproductive cycle begins anew. 

It's illegal in Yellowstone to use artifical calls to imitate the bugle of bulls. Although some employ this technique to draw animals closer, numerous photographers have been charged by elk that mistake their calls for those of other wapiti. 

In late Fall, elk collect into migratory groups. They flow out of Yellowstone on ancient game trails established hundreds or possibly thousands of years ago by their ancestors. In November, Yelllowstone's largest elk herd begins to converge on the park's northern range, where as many as 20,000 animals seek vegetation hidden beneath a snowy blanket. 

One-fourth of these animals may not survive the winter, but the high mortality rate benefits other animals in the ecosystem, namely bear, coyotes, ravens, and other scavengers that depend on winter-weakened elk as an important supply of protein. Despite their size, elk are the main diet of local mountain lions, and in recent years field biologists have documented grizzlies taking down elk calves. 

Cow elk sometimes leave their calves hidden, or in a nursery group with other cows. These calves are not abandoned. You should not approach or touch them, since they have little scent and, if not panicked into running, will normally be safe until the mother elk returns. If the mother returns as you are attempting to fondle her calf, you may find yourself the target of a charging animal. 

Where to Find Elk

The park's high-elevation meadows are places to scan from the roadside. Elk congregate regularly along the Gibbon River near Norris Junction, throughout the lodgepole pine forests to Elk Park, and further north at Mammoth Hot Springs. Year-round, wapiti can be seen grazing in sagebrush meadows and on the artificially green lawns around park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. 

Keep a careful watch as you travel between Dunraven Pass and Tower Falls, Near the Lower and Upper Geyser Basins around Old Faithful, and along the Madison River between the west park entrance and Madison Junction. 

Migratory elk herds are also seen in winter and spring along U.S. Highway 191, which passes inside the park between West Yellowstone and Bozeman. 

The Firehole River, particularly from the Lower Geyser Basin to Madison Junction, is a favorite spot among wildlife photographers who hope to capture the elk rut in the fall.

The National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is a winter sanctuary for several thousand elk from the Bridger-Teton National Forest as well as Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The elk mass here between November and March each year. Wildlife watchers can take sleigh rides through the wintering herds for a nominal charge, and the proceeds help buy feed for the animals. About a hundred bison also winter here. Continue to the next page, Grizzly Bear.

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