The bellowing sounded loud near our viewpoint in West Horseshoe Park, although it came from far across the valley — the pathetic call of a lonely male elk. The echoing bellow from the bull elk nearest us sounded angry, as if warning the other bull away.
Which he was.
To view wildlife doing something other than grazing, visit Rocky Mountain National Park during “the rut,” otherwise known as elk mating season. It begins in mid-September. During this time, young bull elk attempt to create a harem while other bull elk try desperately to hang onto their own.
We saw bull elk stripping the velvet off their antlers by rubbing them against small trees. We witnessed two males who alternated eating side by side with clacking antlers in battle. Surrounding us was the constant bugling of male elk trying to attract females as well as other bull elk trying to warn them off. The bugling sounds varied — some were low grunts, while others were high-pitched whistles.
The most enjoyable sights were watching a bull elk attempt to corral his harem (consisting of cows, or females, plus any young). Several male elk had quite large harems, with well more than a dozen cows and calves. We observed as bull elk stood guard over their harem as its members grazed or drank at a watering hole, and chased off other male elk that ventured too close.
One bull elk hid his harem behind a rock outcropping while investigating a field as a potential resting point. Once cleared, the male called to his harem, which slowly emerged from behind the rocks and joined him in the field to graze.
One young elk was apparently not too discriminating in his choice of mate, spotting me among the crowd by the side of the road when he lifted his head from grazing, and then following me down the road back to my car, where he finally, to my relief, strode off into the woods.
The behavior involving the cows was also exciting to observe as several females had minds of their own. Two cows in one harem managed to detach themselves from the herd and were grazing across and down the road from the rest of the harem. In another family, the male kept chasing around a couple of the females, trying to get them interested in mating, but they were having none of that and fended off his advances by repeatedly turning away from him.
In another harem we witnessed a jailbreak. A bull elk was bugling nearby, which distracted the male elk that headed the harem, but seemed to entice some of the females. While the male’s attention was diverted, one of his cows stole looks at him from her spot at the watering hole. When she saw her chance, she slowly backed away from the water, then suddenly took off trotting across the valley. Her youngster trailed behind her.
Emboldened by the escape, two other cows and another calf also broke from the herd and followed. They had fled quite a distance before the bull elk noticed and charged after them, bellowing for them to return. They all disappeared into the trees with the bellowing gradually fading, and they didn’t return while we waited.
The remaining members of the harem milled about, confused, waiting for their male to return. It made you want to shout “You go, girl!” after them.
During our September visit, we found that the best time for viewing was around 5 p.m., when it started to get dark. The Horseshoe Park area was ripe for elk watching, and several people armed with chairs, coolers and binoculars would wait all day for the majestic beasts to pass through the valley.
Heidi Hunter lives in Eagan. Her September trip to Rocky Mountain National Park took in three other national parks: Wind Cave, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. A few years ago, she visited seven national parks in one three-week odyssey. Her hobbies include photographing nature and wildlife and writing about her travels.