To an outdoorsman, there are a few predictable signs that wildlife exhibit at different times of the year. The gobble of a wild turkey in the spring, the salmon run of an Alaskan summer, and the bugle of a bull elk in the early fall in the mountains of the West are all benchmark events in nature.
The Rim Country has a healthy herd of North American Wapiti “elk” that are starting to sound off, which is the beginning of the mating season called the rut. This is the time when the dominant bulls start to gather a harem of cows for the all-important mating season which determines the future elk herd.
The elk are very nomadic when the herd bulls try to keep their harem in tact as satellite younger bulls try to steal away any wandering cows. It is common for a herd bull to move his harem several miles to avoid the competition of satellite bulls. The dominant bull is challenged frequently, which often creates a clashing of antlers, which can break the silence where the sound can carry for over a mile on a crisp early morning.
The results of these fights often means broken antler tines and even main beams being sheared off by the mere force of two 800-pound animals colliding. Many trophy 6-point bulls end the rut with a remnant of what their rack used to be because of these battles.
When these bulls are preoccupied with each other, it is relatively easy to walk up on the action and take some truly amazing wildlife photos. A word of caution though, it is wise to keep a safe distance just in case of an unexpected charge.
Where the battles for the cows are more intense the vegetation and ground is shredded and scarred when these bulls have locked antlers and pushed each other out of their territory. In some cases, there can actually be a “fight to the finish” when a vital internal organ is punctured by an antler tine. If they lock their antlers and can’t get away from each other they will both die in a head to head combat position.
The herds under the Rim have grown over the last 25 years, where it is common to see elk during the early morning and late afternoons by driving the perimeter roads of Payson as well as the two major highways. During this rutting period, if you see a cow, chances are good that a bull elk is close by. Expect the unexpected, a bull may step out or herd the cows right across the street in front of your vehicle. Consequently, it is very wise to slow down and drive defensively in the reduced light or after dark, because hitting an elk with a vehicle is a losing proposition for everyone including the animal.
This is the time of year that hundreds of professional and amateur photographers come to the Rim Country to get that perfect wildlife photo. This has been a relatively new phenomena, which has made Payson a destination and has created a very positive economic impact on our community.
The prime time for elk viewing is a very narrow window of reduced light in the early morning or late afternoons and the rest of their time is spent visiting other sites, restaurants and businesses in the area.
If you have an interest to listen to or see elk during the rut, drive on any of the secondary roads in the Payson or Pine area at dawn or dusk. Stop and listen frequently, you may here the “king of the forest” challenging another bull for the right of the harem of cows.
This weekend, take a drive or just sit on the deck and enjoy the sounds of nature, who knows, maybe a bull elk will break the silence with that distinct bugle of the challenge of one of the animals in God’s creation.