I heard some elk bugling last week when the moon was full. This wasn’t a real challenge call by the “king of the valley” but just a few youngsters — probably yearlings — trying out their calls, not understanding what they were doing but stirred by the moonlight and the distant calls of other elk far, far away.
The literature says that elk usually breed in October. However, I have heard their trumpeting every year in late August, though this seems early. October coincides with the birth of young in June, which we see every year at this altitude.
When one of these youngsters gives a challenge call, even if he is just practicing, and the leader of the herd happens to be nearby, he must answer the challenge or lose his place to the newcomer.
These fights are over when one of the two drives the other away. A bull elk reaches his greatest power and full maturity when he is about 10 years old. After that, he slowly loses strength until he is forced off by a newcomer, who replaces him as head of the herd. After this, the old leader is mostly alone and has no power over the herd. However, this brings new younger blood into the herds.
At this time of year, elk are rather unpredictable, and it’s a good idea to stay away from them for even the docile animals that have grazed in your yard all summer now become intolerant and belligerent. Suddenly, they are involved in rut and find that the learning calls they have been practicing are really challenge calls, and they have evoked the anger of the dominant male.
They are challenged and must fight until they can gracefully retreat in defeat. The gestation period in elk is about 81/2 months. I usually see the babies every year. The females keep their newborn young fairly well hidden for several days, so you seldom see any wobbly legged young. By the time they are introduced to the herd and playing with other young, they are nearly teenagers, lanky, beginning to lose their spots and exploring all the new kinds of food that are available other than milk.
They grow rapidly during this period and by fall are fat and sleek, ready to endure the cold winter months. Winter is a lean time for both young and old elk, but they do well because of the variety of food that is available. Aspen bark is peeled from the trees, snow is scraped from the grasses unless the snow is too deep or frozen too hard.
When nothing else is available, they will eat the younger growth of Douglas fir and when really hungry will eat the sharp prickly needles of the spruce trees. They have a good variety of food locally and usually do well most winters. In spring, they may be lean but they are still in good health and with all the new growth, appearing every day so they fatten up quickly.
The male’s call is primarily to challenge any interloper, telling him that if he thinks he can take over any of the dominant male’s harem, he will have to fight for them. Some authors believe that it also is used to attract females. However, by the time the bulls are bugling, they already have a harem and the females appear to be totally indifferent to both the calling and the fighting. They just stay out of the way and continue eating, appearing to be totally disinterested in which male won.
The elk in our garden and yards are part of what the Division of Wildlife considers to be the Mount Evans herd, which is supposed to consist of 100 to 200 animals. This is difficult to determine for this group is made up of several small herds, some of which do not venture up the mountain.
They are smart enough to have apparently learned that there is no hunting in the Evergreen area and therefore stay in our yards where they are safe. Nevertheless, they are still one of the prize trophy animals and a lucrative way for the state to bring out-of-state hunters here.
At this time, we have plenty of these large mammals, and the herds can well afford a little animal thinning.
Elk are a problem to farmers and gardeners. They eat grain crops, hay crops, new young trees, vegetables and flowers. I have a pot of salmon-colored geraniums on my patio that elk have stripped of flowers three times. The plants have struggled to grow more buds each time, but the minute a bit of color shows, the buds are eaten again. They do apparently have a sweet tooth for they eat almost all the flowers in my garden.
They are also extremely detrimental to golf courses that must be constantly sprinkled to keep the grass green. This makes the soil soft and a big bull can sink in as much as 12 to 15 inches. This leaves deep holes. I have tried to repair such damage in my own garden, and it is all but impossible since the soil is always so hard and packed at the bottom that nothing can grow. It must be dug up, broken up and allowed to resettle. This is a very expensive process on a golf green.
I personally decided years ago that if I wanted to live in the woods, that the price I would have to pay was in either flowers or a fence. Elk are graceful and beautiful, the largest member of the deer family and part of our native ecology.