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Where the Bulls Are

October 28, 2010 | by Bruce Auchly
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It's the elk rifle season now and most hunters want to know where the bull elk are. The easy answer is up high and way back.

The elk rut, which peaked the third week of September is pretty much over. Yes, it's still possible for a cow to come into estrus, or heat, and be bred by a bull, but the vast majority of cow elk are bred from late August through early October.

The elk mating season has been a marathon for bulls, and the dominant ones, the ones 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 for the rutting season. That gives them maximum time for engaging in rutting activities. Activities like gathering cows into a group, or harem, then defending them against other bulls. Sometimes fights between bulls are spectacular as they lock antlers and shove each other with all their might, much like linemen in the NFL. And when he's not fighting off challengers, the bull is waiting for a chance to breed each cow.

Whew, that's a lot of work!

As the rut ends, the harems disband and cows regroup often joined by young bulls, mostly 1 to 3 year olds. Mature bulls either gather in bachelor groups or go it alone. This segregation comes from design not accident. Mature bulls, 4 to 10 year olds or even older, can lose more fat than young bulls due to the stress of fighting off competitors and maintaining a harem of cows. That means they need to find nutritious forage after the rut.

One theory for why post rut, mature bulls evolved to avoid cows is they are exhausted from rutting and their antlers mark them as easier prey for predators. The best spot then for a mature bull, is not where the cows gather on a large open grassy hillside as might be found on a Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife management area, but on the edge of such wintering areas that contain small patches of habitat. Sometimes that includes deep snow in which predators would have difficulty walking.

The older the bull and the more fat he loses during the rut, the less he tends to join the cows, becoming more solitary, and the more likely he winters in very restricted localities. In the end, it may be an exhausted bull's inability to move to better forage that kills him, according to one reasonable hypothesis.

Elk generally migrate from summer to winter ranges due to a combination of a need to find security, food and in response to weather. In north central Montana, elk in the mountains will stay on their summer range as long as possible until winter or hunters force them out. If winter weather doesn't show up till long after the hunting season ends or no hunter ever intrudes, elk, especially bull elk, will have little inclination to head to their winter range.

So where are the bull elk this hunting season? Up high and way back.