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The Back Porch

Tired elk

Neither Low nor Close

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors November-December 2012 issue

It’s now elk rifle season, and most hunters want to know where the bull elk are. The quick answer? Up high and way back.

The elk rut, which peaked in most parts of the state around the third week of September, is over. It was still possible through Halloween or so for a cow to come into estrus, or heat, and be bred by a bull. But in Montana, the vast majority of cow elk are impregnated from late August through early October.

The elk mating season was a marathon for bulls, and the dominant ones, those that performed much of the breeding, are exhausted, their reserves nearly shot. For weeks on end, a mature bull eats little, living on body fat. Meanwhile, he spends all his time on rutting activities.

That work includes gathering cows into a group, or harem, and then defending them against other bulls. Sometimes fights between bull elk are spectacular, as they lock antlers and shove each other with all their might, much like NFL linemen. It’s exhausting just to watch.

When he’s not fighting off challengers, a bull might wallow in mud and urinate on his legs to coat himself with “cologne” to attract more cows. Or he tries to attract cows and intimidate other bulls by bugling and rubbing trees, shrubs, and the ground with his antlers. Then there are all those cows to breed.

Whew, what a lot of work.

As the rut ends, harems disband and cows regroup into larger herds, often joined by young bulls, mostly one- to three-year-olds. Mature bulls either gather in bachelor groups or move off by themselves.

This segregation comes by design, not accident.

Mature bulls, age four and up, lose more fat than young bulls because of the greater stress of fighting off competitors and maintaining a harem. That means they need to find as much nutritious forage as possible after the rut. But they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable. One theory for why post-rut mature bulls avoid cows after breeding season is they are exhausted and sense that their antlers mark them as easier prey for predators.

The best spot for a mature bull to recover his strength is not where cow elk gather in the middle of a large, open, grassy hillside, such as those on many FWP wildlife management areas. He’s better off on the edge of those wintering ranges, in areas that contain small patches of habitat. Sometimes that includes deep snow that makes it tough for predators to catch him.

The older the bull and the more fat he loses during the rut, the more likely he is to winter alone in remote, hard-to-reach places. Some wildlife biologists suspect that, by shunning cows, the old post-rut bull may end up forgoing the better forage that would keep him alive. By staying at higher elevations in deep snow, he inadvertently makes it that much harder on himself to find nutritious food. Ironically, it’s his search for solitude that could end up killing him.

So where are the bull elk this hunting season?

Up high and way back.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.