They’re all over town. And it almost seems like they own the place — strolling through neighborhoods in all four quadrants of Payson and crossing streets and highways without even looking.
If you walk, bike, or drive anywhere in Payson or the surrounding area, you have a good chance to see one to a half-dozen big-antlered elk munching on residents’ bushes, trees, grasses, leaves or bark. Some people say we’ve seen an increase in the number of elk within the town limits because people are now feeding and giving them water, making them dependent on humans. Others claim their numbers are increasing because the elk feel safe being away from the hunters. Maybe both groups are right. I happen to also think that the ones we see so often in town actually like our company. But then, I could be fantasizing.
Getting up close and personal with one or more of these big bulls with their huge racks is an eye-popping treat. Each year males grow back a new set of antlers, referred to as a rack, that starts its new growth in our area in March. Their new bone growth is covered by fuzzy skin with numerous blood vessels that we refer to as “velvet,” which feeds the new bone growth with blood, vitamins and minerals.
During the early to mid stages of a bull elk’s new rack growth, its antlers are very sensitive and can be susceptible to injury, which can result in abnormal growth. Fortunately, if a bull damages his antlers one year, they grow back normally the next.
Just a couple of weeks ago, an area bull elk’s new antler growth reached maturity. Rings formed at the base of each antler and cut off the blood supply to the velvet, as the velvet was no longer needed. With the rut (mating) season quickly approaching, the bulls’ rising testosterone levels will harden their antlers. They shed the dried up velvet through raking — the rubbing, sometimes violently, of the bull’s antlers against trees, bushes and brush.
Bull elk are sociable much of the year, living in bachelor herds. But as the rut becomes near, they will separate and head out into the forest to gather together as many cows as possible. The herd bull will jealously guard these harems for the duration of the rut. This cow-gathering activity may be well along by late August, but typically picks up as September progresses. Vocalization (bugling) increases, with more bulls sounding off as they attempt to attract the attention of the ladies. The peak of the rut season is generally considered to be the last two weeks of September.
The early stages of the rut can be a wild time in the woods. With testosterone levels soaring, bulls are crazed, thinking only about breeding with cows. To this end, bulls challenge each other for the rights to cows by bluffing or by outright battles, in which slashing antlers determine the victor. The loser usually rapidly retreats, but if he isn’t quick enough, he could be killed.
It’s been said that a herd bull seldom eats or sleeps, spending most of the day and night guarding his harem, running off smaller bulls and dueling with challenging, bigger ones. Solo or satellite bulls that have no cows spend all their time trying to sneak into a harem or find a cow or two of their own.
Please be extra cautious if you encounter one or more bull elk. Enjoy taking pictures, but stay in your vehicle or keep it between you and the elk. Even Big Ben, with his big gut and aging legs, may appear slow and harmless, but don’t be fooled, especially at this time of the year.
I was foolish two years ago and got too close to Big Ben. Before I knew it, the 700-pound giant lowered his head and charged me, faster than I had ever seen him move before. I turned and ran as fast as my aging legs could carry me. As I prayed, I thought at any second I would feel his shed antlers impale my backside. I thought I was going to die. I mean literally; I thought I was going to die! If not for a wire cage around a newly planted tree in the park to find safety behind, it might have been all over for me. Again, please be careful.
Once the rut season is over in late October, hopefully we’ll again see Big Ben and Jerry and many of our other favorite bulls moseying around town, sashaying down the middle of streets, posing for pictures and eating from neighborhood bird feeders.
And who knows, maybe Payson will become the new Estes Park.