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There's Nothing More Colorado Than An Elk Rut Tailgate

Grace Hood
RMNP visitors in the Moraine Park area view elk October 11, 2014.

Inside Rocky Mountain National Park, the fall colors and snow-capped mountains make for spectacular sightseeing. But some park visitors aren't there for the grandeur. They're there with their sandwiches, chips and blankets ready for a different kind of Colorado sporting event: the annual elk mating season.

Enter the elk rut tailgate.

"There are people that come out with lawn chairs and coffee, and all kinds of things — binoculars, spotting scopes — and, of course, cameras," said John Mack, branch chief of natural resources at the park. "They'll watch them into the evening, just taking it all in."

What those tailgaters are enjoying are males bugling back and forth, competing for females' attention. Elk breed in the fall and typically the bulls gather cows into groups – fittingly known as harems.

"…and if you sit there and wait around long enough sometimes you get to see some really exciting things happening," he said.

"There are people that come out with lawn chairs and coffee, and all kinds of things..."

Take sparring between males. It doesn't happen a lot because the animals try to avoid fights with the bugling. But if males are evenly sized and matched, it can happen Mack said.

"They might start walking parallel to each other, and then they do glances toward each other, and then finally it culminates to where they charge each other and lock horns for a bit," he said. "Pretty soon, boom! One walks off."


The victor bull gets to keep the group of cows.

If tailgaters aren't lucky enough to catch elk fights, they can still watch for mating and listen for bugling. In the cold Colorado air, bugling can seem eerie at times, reflecting off the mountains. One typical pattern, explained Mack, is a call and response in which a bull elk with a harem sounds off, and other males respond in the distance.

"It's a way for bulls to communicate to the females that, 'Hey I'm really big and you should hang around me.' It also tells the other competing bulls, 'Hey I've got this big bugle don't come around because I'm so much bigger than you. Stay away.' So there's lots of different reasons why that bugling goes on," said Mack.

Mack doesn't have any favorite elk rut tailgate foods of his own, but his main tools of the trade are binoculars, a spotting scope and plenty of warm clothing.

"Just prepare to sit there and take it all in," he said.

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