Elk begin mating rite in the Rockies
ESTES PARK, Colorado – Loveland resident Bob Monacelli grabbed his camera and rushed to a field off U.S. 287 to watch three bull elk spotted just north of Derby Hill in early August. “There were quite a few people just watching them,” he said. “It’s always good to see a big animal like that. It’s something to see.”
And he, like thousands of others, usually visits Estes Park this time of year to watch the mating ritual between bull and cow elk.
“It’s something to sit there and watch the bull taking in their harem,” Monacelli said.
But exactly how do the males attract and keep 20 to 30 females in late September and early October?
“The females pick the males,” explained Bob Kreycik, Loveland resident, retired veterinarian and longtime National Park Service and Larimer County Department of Natural Resources volunteer.
“They look for big antlers that are symmetrical.”
Undamaged antlers with six or more points indicate a healthy, virile male, he said.
In fact, while the antlers are growing each spring and summer, the males protect them from other bulls by rearing on their back legs.
“They stand up and paw at one another,” said Kreycik.
But by late September, the antlers are full grown and the males ready to attract their harem to mate.
To do so, they let out a unique and very loud whistle, called bugling.
“Every time they bugle, at the end, they let out two to three grunts, and spray urine on their abdomen, chest and neck,” Kreycik said.
“If you can imagine, that’s a pleasant odor. The more they smell, the more the cows like it. The louder they bugle, it’s the same thing.”
So the stronger, larger bull elk are more apt to acquire a harem – and to keep them.
The bulls keep their cows in line, and in their herd, with threats of gouging them with their points.
They also fight off challenging males in the same way, a battle with the large antlers that they will lose in February or March.
And once again, the cycle repeats.
Just as every year the elk bugle in the fall, every year crowds of people flock to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to watch.
While elk also can be spotted in south and west Loveland, Estes Park is the mecca of bugling season.
Just recently, Kreycik saw cars and people lining the streets to watch – the view can be fascinating but can be dangerous if viewers get too close to the elk.
Even after years of watching and teaching, Kreycik still likes to see the ritual.
He added, “It’s interesting.”