As August ends all the way through October, Rocky Mountain National Park becomes elk rut central. These sparring bulls know it, too.
Few sights are as majestic as a fully-grown bull elk. The species is far less common a sight for most North Americans today than they were a few hundred years ago. But if anything, this makes their displays that much more surreal.
One of the best places on the continent to see elk in all their natural glory remains Rocky Mountain National Park. Once summer begins to wind down into autumn, these NPS-protected elk begin their mating rituals. We call it… The Rut.
For elk, the mating season comes with a laundry list of intricacies -especially for the bulls. Each male is in direct competition for a mate. For the mating, sure, but also for the deeply instinctual urge for their genetics to live on and thrive.
See for yourself what The Rut holds for bull elk below. Then, we’ll get into those fascinating intricacies after.
This video was captured by Jackie Pangallo during her visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in Aug. 2021.Estes Park Trail-Gazette
Rocky Mountain National Park is Prime Locale for ‘The Rut’
Firstly, bull elk will gather cows (females) and calves into lesser groups from the large herds. This smaller group is known as a harem. Harems break off from the big herds seen in summertime, and will not include male yearlings. Why? Well, the enormous, dominant bull elks drive them off. Less competition for the ladies that way.
Secondly, if you see a bull elk wallowing in mud and their own urine, that’s part of The Rut, too. Biologists consider this a “perfume” that attracts cow elk. This act also holds multiple benefits outside of mating. A coating of mud goes a long way to keep megafauna cool in the hot months. Some biologists even think the mud markings serve as a sort of “war paint” display for the bulls, too, making them even more attractive to potential mates.
And perhaps the most well-known part of The Rut comes in at #3. Rocky Mountain National Park bulls will rub trees, large shrubs, and even the earth with their antlers as they trumpet and bugle as loudly as they can. This attracts mates, and is also an intimidation display to competing bulls. It’s an incredible thing to witness – as seen here in previous Outsider coverage.
Part 4, Ragusa notes, involves bulls aggressively guarding their harems from other rival bulls. And part 5 is exactly what we see above: The Battle Royale.
Within, the goal is not exactly to kill your opponent in battle, but rather to beat them into submission. Fatalities do occur, but they are rare. It is common, however, for a losing bull to leave with intense lacerations from their opponent’s massive, 6-foot antlers.
So the next time you visit Rocky Mountain National Park in autumn, be on the lookout for The Rut. And as always, give these majestic, massive creatures a good 200 feet of room. They’re always dangerous – but few animals are more dangerous than a rutting bull elk.