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'One Of Nature's Most Amazing Spectacles': All You Need To Know About Elk Rut

A large elk with antlers stands in front of the camera, with rocks and grass in the background.
Tom Pratt
CC BY 2.0
A bull elk bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Elk bugling is one of the classic sounds of autumn in the Colorado mountains. It’s part of an elaborate annual ritual called the elk rut — the sound of elk bulls cruising for a date. Many nature enthusiasts head into the mountains during the elk rut to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. September is high elk rut season, which coincides with the autumn equinox. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s big game manager, Andy Holland, joined Colorado Edition to talk all things elk rut.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Let's start with the basics. What is elk rut? Why does it happen?

Andy Holland: It's one of nature's most amazing spectacles and it's all about mate selection, breeding and survival of species — or as you put it, cruising for a date. Males advertising and forming harems is really rare in deer species. And that's exactly what's going on here. The bulls are bugling to attract females, and that harem not only gives the male more breeding opportunity, but females are choosing which bull they're associating with. By doing so they're selecting a proven male that's older, who’s proven his ability to survive many years and secure resources in terms of forage, which translates into larger antlers and larger body size. So, females are selecting based on physical traits. Ultimately, they're choosing the best genetics for their calves. And there's one other advantage to the female, and that is protection from pesky younger suitors.

I'm curious about what kind of behaviors are part of elk rut other than the bugling.

It all starts with antler velvet shedding in mid-August. And then rubbing trees to strengthen their necks and darken their antlers. And then there's wallowing behavior where they roll in the mud, which makes them smell more intimidating, look bigger — because it makes them darker. And then there's bugling and other vocalizations, sparring and ultimately fighting.

Elk don't just bugle. You just mentioned some other vocalizations. What's the range of sounds and what do they mean?

Bull bugle, which is the higher pitched sound that carries well in open terrain. It can be heard for miles. They also grunt, which is a lower frequency sound that can be heard through trees. They also “glunk,” which is a hollow sound they make when they're tending or herding cows. They mew — bulls mew just like cows and calves. And they bark, which is an excited sound that they use as an alarm.

How much of maintaining a healthy elk population is dependent on a successful elk rut season?

100% of it. It's all about survival of the species. The timing of the rut is controlled by day length, which is why essentially it's associated with the autumn equinox. Right now the days are getting shorter, which affects melatonin levels. That triggers hormone changes in both bulls and cows. Bull testosterone levels can increase 1,000 times. The breeding all happens at the same time, which means the calves are all born at the same time. The importance of that is calves are born when the forage quality is the highest for lactating females to nurse their young. They need to be born late enough that forage quality is high for nursing, but not so late that the calves are not large enough to survive the next winter. It also swamps predators: if all the calves are born at once, the predators have a lot of calves to eat, but they can't eat them all because they all hit the ground at the same time.

What tips can you share about how and when to go about witnessing the elk rut?

Right now is the time to go: mid- to late-September and into the first week of October. If the aspens are turning, that's your cue. I just encourage everybody to enjoy it from a distance. Take binoculars. You'll get a better show if you're not disturbing the animals. There's also a human safety aspect of this as well. You have to remember a bull elk is an 800-pound animal that just had testosterone levels spike by 1,000 times, and they can run 45 miles an hour.

I think the reason that elk is so fascinating, especially in this regard with the road, is just they are very different in their breeding structure. And this this harem forming and bugling this is really a rare spectacle in nature with these large animals being so conspicuous.

A note for our listeners: Due to COVID-19, Rocky Mountain National Park is limiting the number of visitors that can enter the park and requiring reservations – so if you’re planning to go there to witness the elk rut, make sure you check their websitebefore you go.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Sept. 16. You can find the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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