By Christine Gianas Weinheimer Yellowstone Forever
The majestic elk—the most abundant large mammal in Yellowstone National Park—is a favorite among park visitors to observe and photograph year-round. But for a few weeks each autumn, visitors are treated to an extra special display: the dramatic spectacle of the fall elk rut.
September to mid-October is elk mating season in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and people from all over the world flock to the northern section of the park hoping to hear the haunting bugle of a bull elk or witness the males engaging in battle.
During the rut, elk gather all along the Northern Range and at Yellowstone’s North Entrance, but activity is primarily concentrated in Mammoth Hot Springs. You might see elk congregating on the lawns at Officer’s Row, alongside the Gardner River in the Gardner Canyon, or outside the park entrance near the Roosevelt Arch. Elsewhere in the park, you might also spot them along the Madison River near West Yellowstone.
During this time, elk gather in mixed herds of many cows and calves, with a few bulls nearby. Bulls bugle to court females and also to warn and challenge other bulls in the area. When a challenge is answered, the bulls move toward one another and often engage in battle for access to the cows. They push against each other, loudly crashing their antlers together in a contest for dominance.
While these fights rarely cause serious injury to the elk, humans in close proximity should exercise caution. Bull elk can become extremely aggressive during mating season, and have been known to charge vehicles or even people if they feel threatened.
Bulls weighs about 700 pounds and are about 5 feet high at the shoulder, so visitors will want to keep their distance. Park regulations prohibit approaching elk closer than 25 yards, and imitating the call of an elk. Give the elk plenty of room and avoid approaching them in your vehicle.
When exiting the Mammoth Hotel, Albright Visitor Center, or any building in Mammoth Hot Springs, be on high alert. You never know what might be bedded down in a patch of shade just outside, or grazing right around a corner.
The gathering of elk herds in Mammoth Hot Springs signals another type of pilgrimage: the intrepid Elk Rut Corps Volunteers. Along with National Park Service staff, volunteers from around the country are stationed in Mammoth to help ensure the safety of visitors who have traveled from near and far to witness the rut.
It’s critical for visitors to listen to and follow the direction of NPS staff and elk rut volunteers; with a great deal of experience, they tend to know when the scene might become unsafe, and how to help prevent it from becoming so. Plus, NPS staff and volunteers know a lot of fascinating information about Yellowstone’s wildlife, including elk, and are more than happy to share their knowledge with visitors.
Yellowstone Forever—the official nonprofit partner of Yellowstone National Park—funds the staffing of elk rut volunteers as part of the Visitor and Wildlife Education Project.
Learn more at Yellowstone.org.