Rocky Mountain National Park is a special place during autumn. Why, you ask? From the end of August through October, in addition to the beautiful changing leaves, it is mating season for the Elk! The name for this process is formally called the Rut.
The Rut is very intricate. It's not simply one display from a bull elk followed by a cow elk accepting. The Rut is much more complicated and difficult for the bull elk. There are five different parts of the Rut to watch for when you visit Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park this fall.
1. Bulls gather cows and calves into small groups called harems.
A harem is usually smaller than the large cow/calf herds of summer and they lack the male yearlings. These adolescent males are usually driven off by the mature bulls or by cows intolerant of their presence. Sometimes, however, these young males remain near the harem, and often seem confused and unsure of their role.
2. Bulls wallow in mud to coast themselves with urine that acts as a "perfume" to attract cows. If mud is available, bulls also wallow during mating season. A thorough mud covering cools off an over-heated bull, spreads his scent evenly over has body, and makes him look even more imposing.
3. Bulls bugle and rub trees, shrubs, and the ground with their antlers to attract cows and intimidate other bulls. The sounds they make are among the more haunting and beautiful in nature, as memorable as the howls of wolves and the calls of loons. By September, a bull's antlers are fully grown and almost ready for the displays and battles to come. The bull removes the tattered velvet and polishes his antlers by rubbing them on trees, shrubs and even the ground. Vigorous rubbing also releases his pent-up energy and leaves behind his scent to let other elk know that he is around.
A cow listens to the bugle for clues about the bull's size. A bugle, like a human voice, varies with the individual, but the older, larger bulls usually bugle more loudly than their young rivals. Their bugles advertise their presence and fitness to both females and other males. They also bugle to announce or accept a challenge from another male.
4. Bulls aggressively guard their harems from other bulls
5. Sometimes, bulls will wage violent battles with other bulls for a harem.
When bulls display their antlers and body, they are gauging each other's fitness and ability to defend the right to mate with the cows. A young male will probably retreat rather than engage in a fruitless battle with a mature bull. But bulls more equal in size typically confront each other. Before a fight begins, the two bulls display their dominance by bugling and thrashing the ground with their antlers. They might march side by side, then suddenly turn, walk farther, or begin their fight. Then the bulls lock antlers and shove each other with all their might.
Fighting is a show of strength, not a battle to the death, but bulls do get hurt. If they stumble while their antlers are locked, one animal may be stabbed by the other's antlers. Mature bulls often sustain injuries every year. When the cows come into estrus ("heat"), the mating begins. A bull elk must be ready -- a cow is receptive for mating less than 24 hours. She won't be willing to mate again until her second estrus cycle arrives in 20 days. Cows can have up to four estrus cycles each season, but most cows become pregnant during the first or second cycle.
Witnessing this Rut and all its splendors this fall in Rocky is an experience you can accomplish alone or with family. The best way to see the Rut? Go on an Elk Expedition tour with Rocky Mountain Conservancy! You will learn in depth all the parts and processes for the bull and cow elk during the rut. The best part is you don't have to drive so there are maximum viewing opportunities for you, your family, and friends!
For more information about this special Elk Tour we offer in addition to other classes you can register for, please visit rmconservancy.org or call (970) 586-3262.
Don't miss the annual Estes Park Elk Fest, on the first weekend of October! Celebrate the season of the rut with live music, elk information, arts & crafts vendors, bugling contests, kid's activities, and more!
Written by Rocky Mountain Conservancy Bailey Education Fellow - Jamie Ragusa.
Please remember that the elk in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are wild animals. During the rut season, bulls are very territorial and can defend their harems - even from people and vehicles. Keep a safe distance and watch for signs that you are too close. Use binoculars and zoom lenses on cameras to avoid disturbing these majestic animals. For more tips on viewing elk and other wildlife in a safe and respectful way, please visit our Wildlife Watching page.