Every autumn the high-pitched “errrr-EEEEEEEEEEE-rrrrr” of elk bugles fill the air around northern Yellowstone National Park and southern Montana. This marks the start of the elk “rut” – or mating season – where bulls challenge one another and lock antlers to determine breeding rights with nearby females. And it can be quite the spectacle – drawing onlookers from across the planet.
Preparing for Battle
Starting in springtime, after they shed their antlers from the previous season, bull elk grow new spikes and tines that branch off them at an incredible rate. At this time the antlers are covered in a soft, blood-vessel-filled covering called velvet, which nourishes the bone underneath. Once fall arrives, and the process is complete, they use trees, rocks, and shrubbery to vigorously rub off the casing and sharpen the points of their antlers in the process. They are then ready to challenge other bulls to do battle using bugles to call in contenders.
This is where things get interesting; onlookers wait with bated breath to witness bulls lock antlers and push each other back and forth in a test of dominance. However, not every challenge is answered in a battle. Sometimes a young bull commits to more than he’s ready for and is chased off easily by the more mature male. Sometimes two big bulls size each other up and decide to go their separate directions. What remains consistent, though, are the large – seemingly unimpressed – groups of female elk called harems. These female, or cow, elk and their calves nonchalantly chew grass while the bulls, when not battling, jealously guard them and try to keep them in an organized group. Bulls consistently test whether the females are ready to mate using an organ in the roof of their mouths that can detect pheromones.
The spectacle has attracted onlookers since Yellowstone was established as a national park in 1872. Most of the activity now takes place in Mammoth Hot Springs, a National Historic District inside the park that is a mere 15-minute drive from Gardiner, Montana. Here, grass cultivated between buildings attracts the elk and provides easy viewing of bulls and harems.
Where to View the Rut
From Gardiner, drive to Mammoth to park your car and safely view the wildlife from a developed area, including from the porch of the Albright Visitor Center. If you’d prefer to seek elk in a more private setting, hire a guide from a local wildlife watching company who can take you to lesser-known regions including outside of the park. You can also inquire into autumn elk hunting opportunities following the rut with one of Gardiner’s local hunting outfitters. The area is well known for hunting with a permit outside the park’s boundaries.
Please note that elk – really at all times of the year, but especially in the rut – can be extremely dangerous and often attack parked cars and visitors who don’t afford them appropriate space. For more information on staying safe while watching these animals during their mating season, please visit the Yellowstone National Park website and follow all rules and regulations.
Chelsea DeWeese is a guide and writer based in her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.