EAGLE COUNTY — When I was a kid there was one activity I really loved. On many days in mid-September, my family would leave Greeley and go west up to Rocky Mountain National Park. In late afternoon we would drive into one of the valleys west of Estes Park and have burgers or hotdogs cooked on a Coleman stove. My sister and I would sit on the front fenders of a 1940 Ford and listen to the bugling of the elk during the rut. As the sun set the elk would come out of the trees into the meadows and we frequently witnessed a couple of bulls in battle. My family was often alone watching this spectacle.
After dark we would drive the roads shining spotlights into the woods to see deer and elk. At times we met park rangers that had large spotlights on their vehicles. There were few cars on the roads. Even when I was in high school and college, few people were encountered watching the elk. Today things are dramatically different! The roads are packed with cars. There are “elk jams,” where dozens of vehicles line the roads and many people are watching the elk. “Shining” is no longer allowed. The line of cars at the entrance station in late afternoon may be a mile long.
The American elk is the second largest member of the deer family after moose. Female elk (cows) may weigh 500 to 550 pounds and stand over 4 feet at the shoulder. Male elk (bulls) are much larger, weighing over 700 pounds and standing nearly 5 feet at the shoulder.
In Europe, the name for the moose (Alces alces) is elk. When Europeans began to explore North America, they thought that the larger North American animal resembled a moose, and consequently gave it the name elk. Another name applied to elk is wapiti, a Shawnee word that means “white rump.”
in the rut
Elk are tan in color with a reddish brown on the head and shoulders and a light tan rump. Only the males have antlers. Antlers are composed of bone and are shed each year in mid-winter. They begin to develop the antlers early in the year and they are covered in velvet until a point in September. At that time they rub off the velvet and get ready for the mating season called the rut. The eight or more points or tines on each side of the antlers have little to do with age or sexual maturity.
During mid-September, the bulls begin an incredible display. They spray themselves with urine, wallow in mud, and thrash their antlers in bushes, which they may end up carrying with them. They make grunting noises and bugle. A bugle starts out with a low toned bellow, becomes louder with an incredible screeching whistle, and the finish is a series of loud grunts. The only other sound in the North American wilderness that can raise the hair on your neck in a similar way is the howl of the gray wolf.
This display is a male’s way to establish himself as the dominant male with a group of females called a harem. A bull will defend his harem vigorously, though there are times while he is battling with another male that a third bull sneaks in and mates with his cows.
After the rut, large herds often form and may stay together into the late summer. Females have their young in the spring and rarely have twins. The calf will stay with the female until into the fall and often nurse into the fall.
Elk are found all over Colorado and were originally found on the great plains. They are most often found along a forest-meadow area where they feed on grass, forbs, leaves and even the bark of trees. Aspen sprouts are a favored food in the spring. Areas with large numbers of elk often have few young aspen and the white bark has black scars from elk chewing up to about 8 feet.
Before Americans moved west it is estimated that there may have been 10 million elk covering most of the United States. They were often shot for food by settlers who had no game laws to deal with. Around 1910 the estimate of elk in Colorado was between 500 and 1,000 and it was feared that the elk might become extinct in the state. Between 1912 and 1920 a major effort was made to transplant elk and improve the herds.
In 1913 and 1914, before the establishment of the Rocky Mountain National Park, the U.S. Forest Service transplanted 49 elk from Yellowstone National Park. There was an all-out effort to eliminate predators, such as the gray wolves and the grizzly bears. The decrease in predators helped increase the number of elk to dramatic levels, but also altered the ecosystem, since there was nothing in nature to control the population.
The best nearby place in Colorado to view the rut is in the meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park, but lodging at this time in Grand Lake or Estes Park is hard to come by. There are also areas in Eagle County where elk congregate and can be heard bugling in the fall.
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes,” published by Westcliffe Publishers and available at The Bookworm, City Market, Amazon and many stores across the state. The book provides photos and text about the history, lore, wildlife and scenery around the passes of Colorado.