Love is in the Air: Where to Experience the Elk Rut
For much of Montana’s wildlife, fall is a busy season. Bears are starting to think about finding a suitable hibernation den, rodents are gathering as much food as possible for the long winter ahead and other animals are deep into “the rut.”
No, we aren’t talking about poor road conditions; “The Rut” is the terminology used to describe the mating rituals of deer, moose, antelope and elk. During the rut, elevated levels of hormones are produced by each species, which triggers the males to become territorial, and the females to play along. While each animal has its own set of rituals, the most famous and impressive rut to observe is that of the male, or “bull” elk.
When the time is right, mature bulls will begin the rut by marking their territory. They do so by marking trees with their massive antlers and wallowing in mud pits to cover themselves in their own scent. Next, they’ll use an eerie mating call, commonly referred to as a “bugle,” to gather groups of female, or “cow” elk, into sub-herds, called harems. Once a bull has a harem collected, his work is only partly done. Now, his job is to prevent the cows from leaving the harem, which is easier said than done when competing bulls are feverishly bugling nearby. To keep his harem together, the bull must constantly out-bugle his competition and occasionally defend his territory by using its large, potentially lethal antlers to duel with competing males.
The rut takes an especially harsh physical toll on bull elk. Dueling aside, the real kicker to these creatures is malnourishment. Whether they’re claiming territory, gathering cows or defending themselves or their harem, bull elk are in a perpetual state of motion during the rut, but rarely find the time to eat. This situation might sound ideal to some, losing weight in the name of reproducing, but many bulls take it too far and eventually find themselves exhausted at the beginning of the long winter season without enough nourishment to survive.
Where to experience it
You don’t have to be a hunter to experience the rut. Traveling to higher elevations at either dawn or dusk during this time of year will give you an advantageous position to see and hear bull elk strutting their stuff. There are gobs of places to experience the rut in this corner of Montana, but here are a few of our favorites:
1.) Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
The Mammoth Springs area in Yellowstone is located just five miles from the park’s North Entrance and is one of the most popular locations in our region to experience the elk rut. This is one of the few places in the world where people can watch wild rutting behavior take place in close proximity, often without even stepping off the pavement. That’s right—here, you can watch elk gather harems, duel and even seal the deal right in front of the Yellowstone National Park courthouse. Even though the elk aren’t skittish here, it’s more important than ever to keep your distance from them. A charge from a full-grown bull is a day ruiner, no matter what time of year.
2.) Madison River, West Yellowstone, Montana
The Madison River is one of Montana’s best-known trout fisheries, and it’s also known as being one of the best places to experience the elk rut. The section of river that runs between its origin in Yellowstone, and Hebgen Lake, crosses a major migration path and, since the rut coincides with the fall migration, rutting elk are regularly seen and heard here. Driving into the West Entrance will bring you right along the river and put you in prime elk rut terrain. Sometimes visitors will need to venture a ways from the vehicle to get into the animals here and if you decide to try your luck, remember to bring a can of bear spray as a precautionary measure.
3.) Taylor Fork, Big Sky,Montana
The Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River is located just 12 miles south of Big Sky, Montana, and is another drainage that is crossed by a migration path. Rutting elk can be spotted and heard in the meadows and hillsides on either side of this seven-mile-long, improved dirt road. Since this area is located quite a ways outside of Yellowstone’s boundaries, but still on the migration path, it’s also a popular hunting destination. Being the case, visitors looking to experience the elk rut here should dress in highly visible colors and avoid areas where people are clearly hunting.