BY LISA BARIL
If you live in Mammoth, Wyoming, just inside the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, you mark the passage of time by observing the seasonal movements of wildlife. Winter brings the Canyon wolf pack trotting into town along with woolly bison and flocks of Bohemian waxwings. Spring brings protective cow elk with newly birthed calves hidden under stairwells and the grizzly bears that feast on them. Summer brings a conspicuous absence of wildlife as bear, deer, elk, and bison chase the season into the high country. And, just as clusters of quaking aspens erupt in gold on the surrounding peaks, autumn brings bull elk striding into town.
Bull elk have rutted in Mammoth for at least as long as Kentucky bluegrass has graced the historic parade ground, hotel, and post office lawns. Although bulls don’t eat much during the rut, the grass provides some of the only greenery available to cows in the usually dry months of autumn. Cows coming into estrus attract testosterone-driven bulls to abandon their normally secretive habits as they compete for the 100 or so females scattered around Mammoth.
The sight of a mature bull is impressive. Standing five feet tall at the shoulders, bulls top out at about 700 pounds. On a mature bull the antlers curve as much as five feet from their pedicles with a six-foot spread at their widest. A bull like that will sport at least six, probably seven points on either side and have little trouble attracting and defending a sizable harem.
Early in the rut, only one or two bulls roam Mammoth, but before long as many as a half dozen six- or seven-point leviathans can be found chasing cows, fighting with each other, and bugling throughout the lengthening nights of autumn.
Watching the Mammoth elk rut is like attending a sports event. Cars line up in front of the post office and justice center, tailgates fly open, lawn chairs are set out, and the show is always on. Fortunately, school is back in session and few children are visiting the Park. It’s mostly newlyweds (fast runners) and “nearly-deads” (not so fast runners) who remain. The folks sitting in lawn chairs don’t stand a chance—regardless of one’s athletic ability, outrunning a charging bull is impossible.
Instead, it’s wiser to take cover next to a building or behind a vehicle, provided a bull doesn’t get a wild hair and decide that the shiny, black Ford Explorer you’re standing next to poses a threat, especially if he sees his mighty reflection in the window. Bulls often charge passing cars, particularly noisy diesel engines and motorcycles. Stopping alongside a bull, what’s more, almost guarantees an up close and personal experience, as he is sure to aerate the side of your car with his sharp antlers.
Becoming an expert in predicting testosterone-driven wild-eyed bull elk takes practice. “We’ve learned to anticipate their behavior by paying attention to their antlers. Head down and antlers forward means they are about to charge,” a park ranger told a group of onlookers.
As if to demonstrate the point, a large 6×6 bull (six points on each antler) lowers his head, thrusts his antlers forward, and charges an RV slowing down to take a photo. Fortunately for the RV, it was a bluff charge, and the driver sped away with as much enthusiasm as an RV can muster.
While vehicles provide relative safety in terms of life and limb (bills from a body shop are another matter), the rut creates a potentially dangerous situation for visitors on foot—one that is managed by a small army of rangers, biologists and volunteers. The typical day begins with biologists, like Katrina Auttelet, who drives around Mammoth just after sunrise looking for bulls. I accompany her on one such morning and we find two. One of the dominant bulls occupies the lawn behind the visitor center. Another lurks near a day care center (for children of Park employees). The latter bull proves to be a bit skittish, and runs off at the sound of our engine—a good sign.
Auttelet relays the information to other biologists, and together they confirm the location of several bulls. For the time being things are calm, but as elk rut volunteer Dorothy Misetic said, “You never know when it’s about to get exciting.”
Dorothy has been helping with the elk rut for nine years. “I love it,” said Misetic. “I get to be outside all day, talk with visitors, and watch the elk. It’s very exciting and fun to watch.”
Misetic is one of five volunteers assisting park rangers in managing the crowds who come to watch the elk rut spectacle. Their strategy is similar to that of a bull elk herding cows, though maybe somewhat less aggressive. Misetic, and the other volunteers, corral visitors into groups so they can communicate with them more easily—telling them to back up if a bull looks like he might be approaching or getting too close. The volunteers adopt a single bull and communicate his every movement using handheld radios.
A charging bull elicits cheers from onlookers that quickly turn to shrieks of excitement when he makes contact with a passing car. The scene is accompanied by a flurry of radio traffic, scurrying visitors, and flashing lights as rangers wheel around in their vehicles to follow the bull, or head him off should he begin charging bystanders.
A young couple looks on in horror as they realize that the car the bull just raked with his 60-inch long six-foot wide antlers is, in fact, their car. An older couple, who appear less sprightly than some, wonder aloud how they will get back to their car with the bull standing alongside it.
So far, dozens of cars have been raked by the dominant bull, nicknamed Touchdown, because of the antlers that rise from his head like goal posts. Although the Park discourages the naming of elk, visitors have come up with their own names over the years and they tend to stick.
Astonishingly, no one has ever been seriously injured during the Mammoth elk rut, although a few people have been knocked down, had their sweaters torn, and had purses snatched off their shoulders.
“Most of the damage has been done to vehicles. Sometimes it’s the person’s fault and other times they’ll just be driving by,” said Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear biologist, who helps manage the elk rut.
Although sometimes a bit of a circus, the Mammoth elk rut hasn’t been nearly as theatrical as it was when bulls Number 6 and 10 were around. “When those two were in Mammoth together that was the peak,” Gunther recalled.
The numbers refer to ear tags given during capture and handling. The tags alert hunters that sedatives may be in the animal’s system. Bull Number 10 was darted and ear-tagged in 2001, when he got caught up in a badminton set. During the rut bulls thrash and rake trees in dominance displays, but they also thrash anything lying around—like Christmas lights, hammocks, cables and clotheslines, which then get caught in their antlers.
Unlike Number 10, Number 6 was tranquilized twice for bad behavior. Misetic recalls the bull raking 38 cars in one day, prompting Park staff to tranquilize him and remove his antlers to prevent further damage or injury to visitors and staff.
Biologists avoid removing antlers if it can be helped. “But,” said Gunther, “he was a very aggressive bull.” Although removing his antlers didn’t lower his testosterone, he became less aggressive once he was unable to defend a harem or fight with other bulls.
The two bulls, easily identifiable by their ear tags, spent several autumns in Mammoth competing for females in epic battles for dominance. Number 6 met his unfortunate end in the winter of 2009 when he became entangled in a fence in Gardiner and suffocated. Number 10 was killed by wolves in April of last year.
A few years ago, a young bull was caught in a set of construction cones roped together and tethered to a wood post. Gunther, one of a few biologists on call for such occasions, was on his way to deal with it when a well-meaning visitor decided to take matters into his own hands by cutting the rope. The frantic elk, now freed from the post, but still adorned with a set of cones strung in his antlers, ran head-long into a Suburban. The young bull broke his nose and was momentarily knocked out. “Before we could get there,” said Gunther, “the elk woke up and was gone.”
Gunther said he tried twice to dart the elk and remove the cones, but he was always near the river. “Elk escape to the rivers as a defense mechanism,” said Kerry, “so we couldn’t dart him because he might run to the river before the drugs took effect and drown.” So Gunther got creative. One afternoon he sneaked up on the young bull hiding behind thick sagebrush along the river. Using a fire pike, with a device similar to a seatbelt cutter taped to the end, he managed to cut the rope enough so that the cones fell away.
The elk now bears a Roman nose, but also a nice 6×7 point rack. He’s one of the other dominant bulls hanging around the periphery of Mammoth, and is often seen by the north entrance station.
One of the biggest problems park rangers and biologists face is not the rut itself, but the bystanders—who too often underestimate the risk the elk rut poses. Many of us can identify with Park visitors. When we pass through the gates of our national parks, we feel protected. Maybe it’s the gates, maybe it’s the protective embrace of the rangers, but the truth is—elk are wild and potentially dangerous and Yellowstone is far from a theme park.
As the aspens give up their heart-shaped leaves to the waning days of autumn, Mammoth will get a little quieter, and the once adversarial bulls will coalesce into small bachelor herds for the winter, leaving cows, calves, and spikes to their own devices until the following autumn. Few places offer the opportunity to witness such an event, and if you hurry you might still catch some excitement. Just remember to have a plan of escape, and leave the lawn chairs at home.
Lisa Baril is a wildlife biologist and freelance writer living in Mammoth, Wyoming.