DANGER: Yellowstone National Park Elk Calving Season Begins Soon, ‘Be Aware of Your Surroundings!’

by Jon D. B.

Elk calving season is upon us! Yellowstone National Park staff is offering crucial tips and guidelines to ensure a safe visit in the park.

We tend to think of bison roaming Yellowstone, but elk are the most abundant megafauna in the national park. In fact, Yellowstone provides summer range for an estimated 10,000–20,000 elk, or wapiti (Cervus canadensis). On average, six to seven herds roam the park during warmer months. This means a whole lot of action during the fall rut… And a whole lot of babies come spring.

Elk cows and their calves at the hot springs in the West Thumb Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, United States. (Photo by: Wolfgang Kaehler/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As winter ice and snow begins to thaw, spring brings calving season for elk in Yellowstone, which runs from May to late June. During this time, the park asks all visitors to “Be aware of your surroundings!” Elk mothers, or cows, become significantly more aggressive during calving season as they protect their babies. Calves are born at around 30-pounds, but mom will weigh 500 to 600 pounds and can can cause severe injury or death to humans she deems a threat.

DANGER: Elk Calving Season is May to Late June – Be Aware of Your Surroundings!

Remember, you are responsible for your own safety while in Yellowstone National Park. As such, these park regulations and safety tips for elk calving season are crucial for a safe and enjoyable time in the park from May to late June.

  • Always keep at least 25 yards (23 m) from elk
  • Cow elk are much more aggressive towards people during the calving season and may run towards you or kick
  • If an elk run towards you, find shelter in your vehicle or behind a tall, sturdy barrier as quickly as possible
  • Stay alert! Look around corners before exiting buildings or walking around blind spots: cow elk may bed their calves near buildings and under cars
  • Attacks can be unprovoked and unpredictable

For more information on the species, visit Yellowstone National Park’s Elk page.

Yellowstone National Park Lead Ranger Tara Ross on the Dangers of Elk Calving Season

During 2021’s rut, I spoke to Yellowstone’s lead ranger, Tara Ross, about the “unreal dangers” she sees every year within rut and calving season. With over 30 years spent as a Yellowstone ranger, Tara’s personal experiences exemplify how crucial it is to be aware of your surroundings. On one occasion she’ll never forget, she had nothing but a tree sapling between her and a raging cow.

“It was like every movie you’ve ever seen, where there’s a person trying to get you, and so you go back and forth and back and forth behind a tree… It was exactly like that. And it was terrifying!” Tara recalls for our National Parks Journal. “I was jogging before a shift a while back, and here comes a momma elk barreling out of the woods! She was going to get me. And they are so big!”

In fact, she’s adamant these spring “mammas” protecting their young are more dangerous to us humans than the bulls during fall rut. “The cow elk will see you at a distance and they will come at you and chase after you hard, just to protect their calves that are bedded down somewhere far away from you, even,” she explains.

‘The danger can be unreal, truly, because of what they will do to protect their babies. There’s no hesitation!’

Elk / wapiti (Cervus canadensis) calf in grassland in summer. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As for behavior to look out for, Tara specifically remembers the cow elk stomping her hooves something fierce during the encounter.

“You know how a Tennessee walking horse has that specific trot? Where they kick their legs up high and slam them down? That’s what the cows look like when they come at you!” she continues. “It still amazes me every year how maternal animal mammas are with their young. How dangerous they are with their young around. The danger can be unreal, truly, because of what they will do to protect their babies. There’s no hesitation!”

So remember, in Yellowstone National Park, “May or early June is when we see the babies,” Tara cites. “I’ve had so many encounters with mamma elk. Cow elk can be so aggressive.”

Be sure to stay aware of your surroundings, and happy trails in Yellowstone, Outsiders!