For the safety of both visitors and wildlife, the National Parks Service asks that visitors maintain a distance of at least 50 yards between themselves and elk at all times. And during the annual rut, it’s best to bump that number up a little higher. Elk aren’t known for their hostility by any means but mating season often brings out the aggressive side of bulls.
Rutting season takes place every year in late summer/early fall, during which bull elk build their harem of female elk for mating. Because each harem consists of one dominant bull elk and a large group of females, sparring matches over females is a common occurrence.
During these matches, each bull attempts to assert dominance over the other, the winner claiming the female over which they’re fighting. A particularly brutal sparring match took place between two elk in Cherokee, North Carolina on Friday (September 16), the entirety of which a volunteer ranger captured on video.
“Every wildlife photographer would hope to shoot the Elk one day during the rut,” they explained. “Usually all you get is them sparring. This is the real deal.”
The ranger was pleased to see that the bull elk went their separate ways following the fight, neither suffering life-threatening injuries. “[I] was happy that the one that didn’t win got to live and run away. Very cool,” they said. “This was recorded at the Great Smoky Mountains, Maggie Valley, NC, Blue Ridge Parkway. I’m a volunteer ranger and have never witnessed this that good… Awesome!”
Do Bull Elk Fight to the Death During Rutting Season?
The volunteer ranger’s comment implies that bull elk fight to the death during the rut. This, however, is not the case. In rutting season sparring matches, bull elk are essentially arm wrestling to prove which is the strongest, toughest male, deserving of a harem.
When approached by a bull in his prime, a younger elk will often flee rather than attempt to fight for a female. Elk equal in size and maturity, on the other hand, will confront each other.
After sizing each other up, putting their bodies and antlers on full display, bull elk will bugle and thrash the ground with their antlers to signal the beginning of a sparring match. The bulls will then lock antlers, shoving each other with all their strength to determine which is stronger.
While elks don’t go into fights with the intention to kill, injuries do happen. Puncture wounds among bull elk are common. Additionally, their cumbersome antlers can become too tangled to separate. When this happens, bulls can drown or starve to death, unable to feed while locked together.
Because of this, elk actually avoid sparring when they can. Instead, bull elk will intimidate each other by shredding trees or making bluff charges.