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THE NATION

Humans Heed Call of the Wild Elk

Rutting season draws flocks of tourists, but Colorado's growing elk population has become a concern.

October 18, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. -- Every October when the air grows chill and the aspens turn to gold, thousands of visitors from around the world come here to witness one of the greatest spectacles in nature.

In meadows stretching from one mountain to the next, the air vibrates with the guttural bugling of the bull elk. Harsh yet haunting, the call is meant to attract mates, but it reels in even more humans.

On a recent day, as rain and fog fell over the darkening fields, thousands of onlookers parked along the road and walked into the meadows. Keeping a respectful distance from the unpredictable creatures, which can reach 750 pounds, they watched in silence.

"The bugling is amazing," said Randy Harr of Colorado Springs, pointing his camera at a bull elk. "It's right up there with the whale songs."

A lusty call, big antlers and a little brazenness can spur an impressionable female, or cow, to trade her old bull for a new one. Females live in harems of 20 or 30 dominated by one bull. But now, during mating season, bulls begin losing control of their harems as rivals make a play for their cows.

Little dramas unfold constantly.

As onlookers gathered on a hill, they watched a lone bull standing by a creek, its long antlers etched sharply in the twilight. He thrust his great maned head outward and let fly with an ear-piercing wail.

The sodden crowd was transfixed. Cameras clicked and the good-natured banter stopped.

Out in the meadow, a female elk suddenly bolted from her harem, running toward the bull. He bugled again, his voice growing hoarse.

"Fickle, isn't she?" remarked one man as he videotaped the scene.

The Elk Bugle Corps, volunteers recruited during the rutting season to keep people and elk safely apart, feared the bull was becoming erratic. The volunteers immediately asked everyone to move back to the road.

"I like to talk to people about the elk, but also make sure they don't get too close," said corps member Robert Hemphill. "These are wild animals."

Despite warnings, many felt compelled to get closer. The 416-square-mile park has roads running along the meadows, giving people easy access to the elk. The animals, long used to visitors in the park, have little fear of humans.

"This time of year, there is so much activity, and everything is so dramatic," said Cynthia Langguth, a park ranger. "There is a real sense of excitement."

She said bulls lose up to 300 pounds during the rutting season because they rarely eat or sleep and are in nearly constant motion. When they battle another male, however, it's usually not a fight to the death.

"It's done to show dominance," Langguth said. "It's really more of a shoving match. One will eventually say, 'You're bigger. I'm leaving.' "

Park officials say 3.1 million people visit the park each year. About 450,000 come during September and early October to see the foliage and the elk rutting.

Colorado has more than 300,000 elk -- the highest number in the world, say state game officials. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to 3,200 of them.

A century ago, there were no more than 2,000 elk in Colorado, but a 26-year hunting ban and an importation of animals from Yellowstone National Park have made their resurgence one of the great success stories of wildlife management.

Rangers say there are too many elk to sustain the food supply. The animals are stripping bark from aspens and willows -- bark other wildlife depend on. Some estimates put the park's elk population at three times what it should be. Elk hunting, legal elsewhere in the state, is banned in the park.

"The population is impacting the vegetation, which supports a diverse community of songbirds and mammals," said Kyle Patterson, park spokeswoman. "If the population needs to be reduced, we will look at contraception, culling the herd by park staff, opening to limited hunting or introduction of wolves."

Because any of these options is likely to be controversial, the park service is holding meetings around the state to get public comment.

For the moment, the overabundance seems to suit people just fine.

Derrell Stukes of Reno stood alongside his pickup truck watching the approach of about 15 brown and tan elk. The animals stopped just a few feet from his truck.

A musky scent filled the air. (Bull elk urinate in mud and wallow in it to increase their sex appeal.)

"How many people ever get to see this?" Stukes asked, as rain dripped down his nose. "Most people will never get the chance."

By now it was dark. A handful of people left, while others arrived. Tom Boucher of Hooksett, N.H., watched a group of elk feeding.

"Back home, you go into the woods and you may see a chipmunk," he said. "We had never seen elk before. It's fantastic and exciting to be so close."

The animals have been a boon to nearby Estes Park. Recently, the community of 6,000 held its fifth annual Elk Fest, attracting 5,000 people.

"The elk are a big part of the overall economy," said Terry Wright, special events organizer for the village.

During the rutting season, the animals seem to be everywhere.

They chew up the golf course and loiter in the community park, and bulls occasionally wage fearsome battles on the sidewalks. Sometimes, they stand on a porch and peer into a window or create what locals call "elk jams" by blocking traffic.

Jim Hull's house sits on four acres, and he has counted 400 elk in his backyard at one time.

"They're fun to watch," he said. "I never get tired of them."

Village officials cover the golf course's greens every winter to keep the elk from reducing them to scrub. Fences are put around trees to prevent the animals from stripping the bark. Gardens are major targets.

However, most residents made their peace with the elk long ago, and see them as magnificent animals and a vital part of the economy.

"I love watching the elk," said Patrice Sullivan, an art teacher and park service volunteer. "They come up on my porch; they eat my flowers; but I figure they were here first, so I have to get used to it."

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