Field Notes from Steve Cain: Bugling Elk

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Photo by Ryan Sheets

Shorter days, cooler temperatures, new snow in the high country, changing colors on the landscape, and the eerie trill of elk bugles in the morning and evening air signal the coming of fall in Grand Teton National Park. Bugling by bull elk in September and October serves to alert other elk to the status of a breeding male in a highly ritualized and age-old breeding system known as the rut. Cow elk size up a bull’s fitness as a potential mate through his bugling prowess, while other bulls evaluate a prospective rival’s dominance in the competition for access to females. The strongest bulls maintain harems of cows and calves during the rut, vigorously defending them from other bulls for the opportunity to pass on their genes. The resulting display of raw nature in action – bulls bugling, fighting, and herding small groups of cows and calves that dart this way and that – plays out with a magnificent Teton backdrop, drawing many human observers.

Lupine Meadows, the White Grass Ranch area near the Death Canyon trail head, and the sagebrush flats east of Timbered Island often reward onlookers at dawn and dusk. Bring your binoculars and please remember to give the elk plenty of space during this important stage of their annual life cycle.

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