Live from the Yellowstone Elk Rut

Although Yellowstone's infamous and beloved Number 6 is sadly absent from the scene this year--the result of his tragic death--the annual elk rut continues full swing in Mammoth Hot Springs this fall. Bull elk bugle loudly and tussle over females, while park visitors watch from a safe distance. Below are some photos and video highlighting the elk activities of this past week.

A Spring Hike in Yellowstone: A Photo Essay

Spring is earned in Yellowstone, and both the people and wildlife alike greet the melting of the snow and the rising of the temperatures with a sense of accomplishment. For us humans, winter’s chill poses discomfort; for the animals of Yellowstone, it can threaten their survival—especially for its ungulate populations. Foraging for food underneath the deep cover of snow is tough even in the mildest of winters; Dr. James Halfpenny, in one of his classes, compared it to eating cereal all summer, then having to survive on the cereal box all winter.

This past Sunday I took a hike along the Rescue Creek trail and encountered an abundance of wildlife also appreciating the warm sunshine.

An Early Spring Drive Through Yellowstone

I recently drove though the early season quietude of Yellowstone. The semi-plowed roads are open only to administrative traffic, and wildlife still roam freely, looking surprised at any intruding vehicle. Although the calendar indicates spring, the interior of Yellowstone still appears firmly entrenched in winter. Below are a selection of photos from my trip.

Eulogy for an Elk: Yellowstone’s Number 6

Yellowstone's Infamous Number 6Yellowstone’s Number 6—reigning monarch of the Mammoth elk dating scene—died this week at age fifteen as the result of a freak accident. 

His 725 pound body (impressive by elk standards) was found in Gardiner, Montana just outside the north entrance of Yellowstone. Authorities believe he suffocated after tripping over a fence and pinning himself between some rocks.

Number 6 distinguished himself from the herd with his curmudgeonly character and apparent fearlessness. He was known to charge automobiles without hesitation, and the trophy of a car tail light dangled from his antlers one day last fall. Visitors foolish enough to disobey the park’s regulations of keeping a 25-yard boundary soon found themselves confronted with the dangerous reality of a cranky, 700+ pound bull elk. Dedicated park rangers and volunteers patrolled Mammoth during the rut in an effort to keep both the visitors and Number 6 out of trouble.

Number 6 Bugling Away!Like a small town eccentric that everybody loves despite the inconvenience and even the slight danger he poses, Number 6 was much beloved in Mammoth by park employees. With his bravado and confident swagger, he ruled the elk rut in Mammoth, his closest rival being the younger (and less flamboyant) Number 10.

From our office windows this past fall, my co-workers and I followed Number 6’s exploits as he bugled and sparred with Number 10. I often felt like a voyeur, spying on the poor fellas while they competed for each other’s harem—the ungulate version of ‘The Bachelor.’ When I spoke with business associates on the phone, the question would inevitably arise about the loud noise in the background; they always expressed disbelief when I revealed it to be a bugling elk. And in the fall, Number 6 often extended my workday because of his wandering near the office exit and blocking access to my car.

The Next Generation? The King Is Dead, Long Live the KingBeing new to the park, I experienced my first elk rut last year, and I looked forward to following the infamous adventures of Number 6 for many years to come. Bull elk are plentiful in Yellowstone, but few can match Number 6’s singular, ornery character. Number 10 has some rather large shoes (or hooves) to fill next year.

Number 6: I hope in the elk afterlife the rut season is endless, the cows are plentiful, and the wolves scarce.  

Number Six's Filmography: Scenes from the Yellowstone Elk Rut 


The Wildlife Are Coming, The Wildlife Are Coming!

An Elk Good MorningWintertime brings pleasanter experiences to Yellowstone than the insane cold. As the temperatures drop and the snowflakes fall, some of the wildlife head to lower elevations for winter foraging.

The northern range of Yellowstone provides a winter home for an assortment of ungulates such as bison, elk, and pronghorn. And I am lucky enough to be able to watch the parade of wildlife march by my front door.

A Young Bull ElkThe first arrivals this year (that I’ve observed) have been the elk. Although 10,000 to 20,000 elk live in Yellowstone during the summer, the number decreases to under 9,000 in the winter because of the harsh conditions. According to the National Park Service’s publication, Yellowstone Resources and Issues 2008, only the Madison-Firehole herd lives year-round in the park.

In the morning a small herd of elk usually naps nearby my car, greeting me as I depart for work. In the afternoon, the herd wanders in my yard, pawing the snow to forage for vegetation. As I wrote today, a curious elk peered in my window. I also observed a group of pronghorn near Old Gardiner Road, and I'm sure the bison won't be far behind. I'm looking forward to the arrival of all of my seasonal neighbors!

An Elk Poses for a Photograph

Old Faithful in Autumn, California Friends, and the Abrupt Arrival of Winter

Tre and Susan, two of my good friends from California, visited me this week in Yellowstone. We enjoyed warm autumn weather for most of their trip, but a storm system is moving into the region tonight. After reading the forecast calling for 6-12 inches of snow, my friends promptly fled south—I had to exercise self-control not to join them. My winter anxiety became heightened since the special weather statement announced, “fall weather is about to come to an end with a sudden switch to winter conditions.”   I guess I’ll pack my shorts away until next July!

Here’s a selection of photos from our travels in the park:

Fall at Old Faithful Basin

Tre & Susan in Yellowstone

Young Elk Calf

Old Faithful

Gibbon Falls

Fall Landscape Near Lower Geyser Basin Tre, Susan and Beth

Scenes from the Yellowstone Elk Rut

Elk #10 Outside My Office WindowGrowing up in New England, brightly colored leaves adorning the landscape meant fall had arrived. Here in Yellowstone, if I have to dash to my car after work in order to avoid being chased by an elk, I know summer has given way to autumn.

This is my first year in Yellowstone, and my first experience with the annual elk rut. I highly recommend visiting in late September in order to witness this spectacle. 

The bull elk rule Mammoth Hot Springs for a month, and I pity the poor park rangers on elk patrol who work tirelessly at keeping visitors from getting too close to a 700 pound male elk with 60 inch long antlers (yes, amazingly, people do try!).

From my office window, I hear the loud bugling of the bulls daily as they search for females or warn off other male competitors. It’s Yellowstone’s elk dating scene in full force. I’ve become acquainted with two bulls who frequent the area--#10 and #6. Number 10 often serenades me outside my window, and he finally found a lone cow girlfriend on Friday. He’s at a disadvantage in securing partners because Number #6 dominates the Mammoth area.

The Infamous Number 6

Number #6 has a reputation for aggressive behavior, and has charged cars and emerged the victor. This past week, he strolled around Mammoth one day with a broken vehicle tail-light hanging from his formidable antlers. Bulls usually drop their antlers in March or April, and will reach full growth 3-5 months later. A typical rack can weigh 30 pounds.

For a taste of the Yellowstone elk rut scene, here’s my new YouTube video:

An Assortment of Ungulates

Day two of wandering through the peaceable kingdom. My front yard seems to be the new cool hangout for ungulates. Perhaps they heard about all those donations I made to animal rights groups?

Resting elk near the Yellowstone river
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One looks at me curiously
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Nearby a herd of mule deer nap in the sun
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The dainty pronghorn also showed up for the ungulate gathering
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And an ungulate trifecta: elk, bison, and pronghorn all in one photo!
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All Creatures Great & Small

Imagine opening your front door to a herd of bison or walking to the post office being followed by a few young elk. I keep marveling over the assortment of creatures wandering around Yellowstone. Below is a photo diary of my animal encounters just today.

I open my front door and I see........
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...elk and bison grazing on the grass newly revealed by the melting snow.
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A bison strolls to my house, probably looking for my chocolate stash.
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On my way to the Mammoth Hot Springs Post office, I pass an elk inspecting the cars,
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while his buddy maneuvers through the snow,
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and others graze nearby,
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some with a cottontail companion!
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Skiing on Superbowl Sunday

tower falls.jpgA typical day cross country skiing in Yellowstone: bull elk resting in the snow, bison wandering down the ski trail, wolf tracks and scat scattered on the terrain, and water running under the translucent blue ice of a frozen waterfall.

My co-worker, Marti, and I took an afternoon ski to Tower Falls—a rather small fall by Yosemite standards at 132 feet, but beautiful nonetheless. Watching the water flow beneath the waterfall’s frozen coating was mesmerizing. I also learned the best strategy for dealing with the appearance of a bison herd in your ski path—make a wide berth around! Of course as soon as we had broke trail through the powder and arrived at the other side, the bison had removed themselves. I think they just like watching skiers do extra work.

lone bull elk.jpgAfter the ski, my neighbors of about 20 feet away invited me to a superbowl party. I dined on elk, moose, and mule deer, along with homemade enchiladas and sushi—all well earned after my ski excursion. I’m glad I went as most attendees were Giants fans, and New England needed a representative. I didn’t have any Patriots gear, so I wore my Red Sox hat.

bison napping.jpg I realized how old I am when one of the teenagers at the party asked me who the creepy old guy was singing at half time. My friend Michelle and I have a strong opinion that rock stars should not be allowed to play after 50, which this teenager further vindicated. I'm not a football fan, but how can the Pats lose after a perfect season? Actually, I am glad. Us New Englanders like being the losers and underdogs; our teams have been winning too frequently of late. Let's give it another 80 years before the next national victory-it builds character.

Winter Wonderland

View%20from%20my%20Home.jpgGiven the relatively balmy temperature of 19F today, I decided to venture out and play in the snow. First activity: shoveling a driveway, something I haven't done in about twenty years. A winter storm moved in this morning and is expected to drop about eight inches of snow.

I took a short hike up the old park road from Gardiner, and encountered four elk descending from a ridge into a sheltered basin. Winter%20Elk.jpgOnly the northern part of the park (where I live) is at a low enough elevation to support significant winter populations of elk; the NPS estimates Yellowstone supports 30,000 elk in summer, which drops to between 15,000 and 22,000 in the winter.