Cervus canadensis (North American Elk or Wapiti) It was late September in Yellowstone and the male elk were in full rut. The large herd bulls were gathering the harems of cows while the young “wannabees” circled the outside edges looking for an opportunity to horn in (no pun intended). The antlers on the mature males can grow to over four feet long and span six feet, and while much of the antler wrestling is ritualized, serious injury sometimes occurs. We watched these two bulls in the meadows at Madison Junction, where the Firehole and Gibbon rivers come together to form the Madison. When you first looked out across the meadow, it appeared to be empty. And then you heard the bugling. It is impossible to describe this eerie sound to someone who has never heard it. It is primitive but strangely, beautifully compelling and apparently translates roughly as, “I am the boss of these girls. Come any closer to the ladies and I will be the boss of you! If you don’t believe me, bring it on.” We let our eyes follow our ears....and suddenly this bull stepped into the sun from his hiding place near the tree line.
The challenge had been issued. From the middle of the meadow, what we had thought was the branches of a dead tree slowly rose to its full height. It was another bull. When we brought out the binoculars for a closer look, we could see his ladies bedded down a little further to the west. So ensued our typical Yellowstone scramble. There was a mad rush to set up the tripod, pop on the 500 mm lens, try to encourage the person who had just stepped in front of us that there were other great viewing places, remember to take off the lens cap and hope that we would not miss the clash of the Titans during this process. Again, that eerie sound ... this time from the other bull. But then, as if the verbal challenge had been sufficient, each returned to his harem and this photo op was over.
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