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Bugling and Barking: The Elk Rut

The stillness and silence of the evening air is broken by a low-pitched bellow that intensifies to a loud, high-pitched trimodal note that continues until the bull elk runs out of breath. With a quick gasp of air, he immediately follows this with a  series of barks or grunts.  He repeats the  bugling  again and again  in an attempt to seduce female or cow elk to join the bulls’ harem.  The bugling is countered by that  of nearby rival bulls trying to out sound their competitors in an  attempt to woo the cows. These serenades continue throughout the day, reaching a frenzy in the evening.

The elk rut or breeding season generally runs from September to mid October.  At this time, the mature bulls drive the spiked and young bulls from the herd and begin bugling to attract cows to form harems. The herd splits into a number of small harems dominated by mature bull elk.  The young bulls hang on the fringes of the harems and attempt to steal a cow to breed.

Hearing, observing, and photographing the elk rut in the wild is made enjoyable and accessible at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.  The Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area provides the opportunity to experience the elk rut up close.  The action is close and unremitting from dawn to dusk, however, my experience is that from early evening to dusk is the most action-packed time of the day.  During the peak rut period, up to 500 elk visit the viewing area, forming numerous and ever-changing harems. 

During the rut, bull elk engage in a number of mating behaviors, including posturing, antler swinging, tree and brush thrashing, sparring (which is the most exciting behavior to watch) and, of course, the bugling and barking.  The bugling may be heard for miles and is the main technique that bulls use to communicate dominance.  Cows are attracted to bulls that bugle the most and loudest.  Thus, bulls must bugle frequently.  Bulls also urinate on the ground and roll in the urine soaked soil, coating their fur with an unique fragrance in hopes of attracting cows. It is said that the cows select the bulls, which may be true, but a cow that has joined a harem is not free to leave at will.  The bull uses herding techniques to prevent cows from leaving and joining a rivals harem.

Although the bull may be considered the "boss" of the harem, it is the older, mature cows that are the leaders.  A bull’s harem typically consists of 15-20 cows, but may consist of as many as 30.  Only prime, mature bulls have large harems.  Neither Young (2-4yrs) nor aged  (11+ yrs) bulls have harems and instead spend their time during the rut on the periphery, attempting to breed with cows that stray beyond the watchful eye of the dominant bull.  The harem-less bulls  constantly try to sneak in to the harem to breed or challenge the dominant bull for his harem.  They may even "gang up" on the dominant bull so that one can challenge him to a sparring match as the others rush the harem, seeking a cow to breed.  

Rival bulls will challenge dominant bulls by bellowing, standing parallel to the dominant bull, pacing back and forth, and thrashing their antlers and swinging their head.  This posturing allows the bulls to assess each other's antlers, body size, strength, and fighting prowess. This posturing becomes almost a non-stop event in the evening to dusk hours. A single rival bull will make repeated posturing moves and new rival bulls will join in, keeping the dominant bull on guard.  If neither bull backs down they charge forward and engage in antler wrestling or sparring. Often, when two bulls pair off, the commotion attracts a third bull to charge in and challenge the winner.  The sparring usually only lasts for a few seconds with the loser retreating.  The sparring takes place in what I call a "gentlemen's agreement."  The bulls nod their heads prior to rushing forward, as if agreeing to the rules of combat.   In most cases, little injury results from the encounter apart from a bruised ego or an antler thrust into the rump of the loser as he retreats. Death rarely occurs.

During the rut, bulls also constantly roam from cow to cow sniffing  rumps and sensing the air with their tongue to determine whether a cow is in estrus and ready to mate.  If the time is right, the bull breeds with the cow.  This constant need to manage, maintain and defend the harem and to breed requires enormous amounts of energy, and provides little time for bulls to feed.  As a result, bulls will lose about 20 percent of their body weight by the end of the rut.  This means that unfit bulls may not have the stamina to breed and may even struggle to survive the coming winter.

By mid October the rut ends and the mature bulls resume their solitary ways. The cows reform the herd, rejoined by the spiked and young bulls.  Come winter, the herd migrates to their winter range.  The older bulls often do not migrate.  As spring approaches, the heard migrates back to its summer range.  Pregnant cows leave the herd to calve, typically giving birth to one tan colored and spotted calf.  They rejoin the herd when the calf is able to travel with the herd, usually in two to three weeks.  In the summer, bulls either form small bachelor groups or roam as lone individuals.  Bulls are non-territorial, and only establish and defend harems during the rut. 

More About Elk

Elk are the second largest member of the deer family, moose being the largest.  Bulls average over 700 pounds and can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds, while cows weigh in at 500 pounds.  Bulls, of course, annually grow and shed antlers made of bone that is covered by a soft layer of blood-rich skin, called velvet.  The antlers of mature bulls are quite impressive, with long, round beams that sweep up and back, branching out with six tines or points.  The antlers of a mature bull may weigh between 40 and 60 pounds, requiring well developed neck muscles to carry the load.  The velvet covering is stripped off by August in time for the rut.  Elk have distinct summer and winter coats.  In winter, the head, neck, and legs are a dark brown, the sides and back turn a grayish-brown, and the rump turns yellowish.  The neck is covered by a heavy dark mane.  In contrast, the  summer coat is a universal reddish-brown with a tan rump, and the mane seems to disappear.

Prior to European settlement, elk were most abundant and widely distributed  from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts and from Northern Alberta to Mexico.  Today, they are found mostly in the Rocky Mountain region.  The decline in the elk population was a result of habitat loss and over-hunting.  Similarly, the  native elk population found along the Missouri River was eliminated by habitat loss and over-hunting.  The elk herd was restored in the 1950s when elk from Yellowstone National Park were transplanted in the Missouri Breaks region of the wildlife refuge.

If You Go

The Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area is located in the far western portion of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.  It is situated in the Missouri River Breaks, on a dirt road that travels along the floodplain of the Missouri River, just off U.S. 191.  The dirt road may be impassable following heavy rains, but otherwise is drivable by automobile.  If you visit during the elk rut, the nearby camp ground is under primitive conditions at that time, so no water is available, and campers should plan accordingly.  The nearest town with sufficient lodging and restaurants is Lewistown, some 70 miles one-way to the south.  The best time to visit is usually during the last two weeks of September, but this can change according to the weather conditions.  For more information visit the wildlife refuge's website:  http://www.fws.gov/refuge/charles_m_russell/.