Vail Daily column: On the hunt for nature’s majesty

The forest is almost silent as the first rays of the morning sun stretch slowly into the trees. Flecks of dust dance delicately through the air, reflecting prisms of light in every direction. The lone hunter takes a step, snapping a stick in the process. The sound reverberates and he stops, scanning the forest around him for a sign that he has been discovered. He hears nothing. Then, a sound pierces the air, and he smiles. The sound is shrill, loud and long, with an eerie haunting quality to it. It starts as a deep, resonant call, and then the bugle turns into a high-pitched squeal before ending with a collection of snorts and grunts. The call evokes a sense of the sacred, wildness of the place, and the hunter feels a tangible thread of the primal connection between the hunter and the hunted.

Announcing dominance

The hunter continues his trek, walking quietly in the growing daylight. He can hear the big bull up ahead, bugling again and again as he announces his dominance. With his loud calls, the bull is announcing his fitness and strength, both to any nearby males and to the groups of female elk, or cows. The bugle also serves as a challenge to any nearby males who might think themselves ready to mate. Only the fittest bulls will get the chance to mate, and a strong bugle is the first step in demonstrating their prowess.

The hunter continues closer and spots a small “satellite bull,” so named because they hover about on the fringes of the herd, waiting for a chance to mate. This hunter, though, is after bigger game. Only the trophy elk will do, and he begins skirting the hillside, making sure to stay downwind so as not to alarm the satellite bull and send the herd running. These satellite bulls can usually only watch in frustration as the more dominant bulls round up their harem and prepare to mate. The cows are looking for bulls that are in prime physical condition, usually between 6 and 8 years of age and sporting a big rack of antlers, and only the best specimens will do.

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The hunter moves even more slowly now, as the daylight grows. Circling downwind of the herd, he watches as the bull elk begins herding cows, calves and yearlings to form his harem. The male must continue to demonstrate his dominance and fitness, and elk do this in various ways. Big bulls commonly roll about in mud wallows, spreading their scent evenly on their body and making themselves look even more daunting, along with continued bugling and other demonstrations of strength.

Challenging bugle

Another bugle pierces the air and the hunter freezes. The satellite bull’s head is raised and he is closer to the herd, issuing his challenge that echoes in the morning stillness.

The dominant elk answers, bugling back with a call that is longer and louder than the previous ones. The satellite bull steps forward, stomping his feet and grunting as steam spurts out from his flared nostrils. The two bulls run toward one another, then one turns abruptly and they march side by side in a convoluted sort of dance. The dominant bull thrashes the ground with his antlers, and the satellite bull follows suit, showing off the strength and size of his own rack. For a moment, it seems like there will be a fight as the two bulls stare each other down. Then suddenly, the smaller bull wheels around, snorting as he trots back to the outskirts of the group, seemingly content to wait at least another year before continuing his challenge for the right to mate.

Hunter captures prey

The drama over, the hunter continues his stealthy march. His feet are wet and cold, and his shoulders ache from the heavy gear he carries, but he doesn’t feel any of these sensations. He’s almost close enough now, 150 yards, 100 yards, as he closes the gap. He can smell the elk’s musky scent now, and he quietly kneels down under the cover of a small shrub. Bringing the scope to his eye, he prepares to capture his prey, taking a deep breath and aiming carefully.

Click. The deed has been done. The hunter leaves quietly, so as not to disturb the rutting elk, taking home his prize — the trophy photograph of the majestic bull elk with his breath glinting in the morning sunlight. As the hunter descends back into the valley, he takes with him the beautiful photograph and sweet memories, and he leaves behind the elk who continue on their ancient ritual that ensures there will always be elk to hunt.

Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate studies at Walking Mountains Science Center. Jaymee enjoys all aspects of the fall, although she has yet to try her hand at elk hunting.

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