Originally published Sept. 7, 2006
Once more it is time for the “bugling” of the bull elk to flow down the mountains. This eerie, wailing sound is part of the rutting season and as much a part of the Rocky Mountain autumn as the turning of the aspen leaves.
The first call reported to me this year was on Saturday, Aug. 26. A bit early but not too unusual. The calling will continue through September and dwindle in October, with still a few last calls heard in November.
The call of the bull elk is most often referred to as bugling, however, it has an eerie quality when heard at dusk that has scared many a tenderfoot camper out of his wits.
It is not as much a love song to attract the females as it is a challenge to other males. In fact, the females appear to be rather blasé about it, going on grazing and feigning total disinterest even when the challenge has been answered and two bulls may be fighting nearby.
A few weeks ago, there was a highly successful jazz concert at Evergreen Lake, but the night before there was another concert that very few people attended. It was a full chorus of bull elk challenging each other that sounded like the “wail of a downhearted frail.” Often the younger males seem to do the first challenging, but it is the big, mature bulls that win the fights and collect the largest harems.
We had an old bull that dominated the herd that went through this area for many years. I nicknamed him “Bigfoot” because he left such big footprints in my garden. He has apparently been replaced by a magnificent younger bull and probably has died by now, for I have not seen him for several years.
Our elk herd has become way too big for its own good and for the environment. The willows along our streams show a definite browse line where they have been browsed as high as an elk can reach. They are smart enough to realize that there is no hunting in the Evergreen section because of the density of houses and human population. So often they “move into town” where they feel safe when the hunting season starts.
At some point, the herd will need to be thinned for its own sake. It remains to be seen what decision the Colorado Division of Wildlife will come to, but they may allow one or two days of hunting by special permit in areas where the elk tend to gather in winter. Whatever means the division deems best, we must accept for the sake of the elk. The long, slow death of starvation is far more cruel than that of one well-placed bullet.
I have always liked the Algonquin Indian name for the elk, “wapati.” It means pale or white and was used to differentiate between the much paler elk and the dark brown moose. Our American elk is closely related to the red deer or stag of Scotland.
However, the elk is much larger. Elk are the most gregarious of the big mammals with exception of the bison. They are somewhat migratory, moving up the mountain in summer and down to the lower valleys in winter.
Although most of us have come to think of our semi-domesticated elk as no more dangerous than a herd of cattle, it is a good idea to treat them with respect. They are large, powerful animals, and the bulls are rather temperamental at this time of year.
If you come between a bull and his harem, and he considers you to be a threat to his dominance, he can easily challenge and trample you. At this time of year, play it safe and let him be the “Lord of the Valley” once more.
The elks’ quavering call is one of the great sounds of the wild. Listen for it at Evergreen Lake, Elk Meadow Park, Noble Meadow, Upper Bear Creek or most any of the areas where you may have seen them in large numbers. The greatest amount of calling occurs at dusk and dawn and on moonlit nights. It is a wild musical experience.