Elk brawl and bugle at Camas National Wildlife Refuge
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It didn’t sound as good as a high school band’s trumpet section as some of the buglers were out of tune as the orange sun tried desperately to shine through the thick smoke. I located at least 18 different bull elk announcing their availability to the nearby herds of cows as I lay on a prickly-pear infested ridge.
It was my seventh annual trip to the same trail junction at Camas National Wildlife Refuge to intercept the early morning movement of the elk moving from water of Sandhole Lake to the feeding area. About 60 head of elk worked their way past my hiding spot before there was enough light to begin taking pictures, but from the sounds of the bugling behind me indicated there were still many more to come.
A cow with a calf came withing 30 feet of me, spooked and trotted off about a hundred yards was the first close encounter that I had as the herd set up feeding in the thick willows west of me. Most of the young bulls were spread out through the flat dried up lake and got involved is practicing their bugling technics. The deep bass sound of an old bull vibrated the ground as he rattled antlers with another bull.
I was finally able to take pictures as the herd bulls were busy trying to keep their cows and calves together while trying to separate “his” from “theirs.” Marauding “satellite” bulls would try to steal a cow while the herd bull was busy keeping others at bay. Occasionally a cow would ignore the bullying tactics of the herd boss and head into the willows with a younger bull.
The clicking of my camera must have been heard by one of the bulls with a small herd of six cows and calves as he came out of the willows and we were eye-to-eye. Not a comfortable feeling while playing “chicken” with a well-armed male looking for a fight. A cow saved the day as she came out of the willows, recognized me, barked and led the herd about 100 yards away.
The annual “Birds, Bugles and Brunch” event hosted by the Friends of Camas National Wildlife Refuge scheduled for Saturday, was postponed because of “current events” this year; but the bull elk missed the memo. The bulls got really noisy as they started moving about the patches of willows.
Experiencing the annual elk rut can be exciting and exhilarating event as the bulls bugle, fight and mate to produce next spring’s calves during September and early October. A portion of the herd on Camas NWR is a year-around one but it will grow in size as migrant elk will join the herd during the fall migration from the mountains. An early morning hike along the back roads that are closed to non-service vehicles can be very rewarding as you listen for and observe the daily movement of the elk.
Other popular places to observe the elk rut are in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and on Harriman State Park in Island Park. On a trip last Saturday to Yellowstone, we were only able to observe two herds of elk. A ranger told us that the elk, bear and wolves are staying high due to the hot dry weather that we are experiencing.
Mark Beckley, a part-time helper for the Dry Ridge Outfitters at Harriman, told me this week that the elk are getting more active by the day. Dry Ridge Outfitters run daily guided tours on horseback or a wagon rides out near Golden Lake to experience the yearly ritual. They can be reached at (208) 558-7433 or online at www.dryridgeharriman.com.
I will make at least one more hike into the back of Camas as the cows appeared not very receptive for the noisy bulls and the “want-a-be” bulls are still bunched up. With the predicted colder weather with rain this weekend may change the female’s attitude, causing boxing matches between the cows and battles between the bulls.
Where ever you go to watch these beautiful animals, be very careful as they are very wild animals and don’t chase or harass the animals; the bulls get enough exercise while trying to keep the cows in line.