All Things Outdoors with Jim Zumbo
There’s nothing quite like watching a new morning being born in late September when you’re standing on a ridge in the Rockies. As the rising sun slowly creeps over the eastern horizon, you see quaking aspen forests in all their glory with exquisite shades of gold, yellow, and orange. Frost hangs heavy on the leaves, and you hear geese overhead flying south. But one thing is missing, and you listen intently, hoping to hear that sensational sound.
There it is! A bull elk bugles in the distance, a sound so piercing and enchanting that you become mesmerized. Somewhere in the forest, an elk is announcing his presence as he follows the age-old rituals of the breeding season.
Elk are primarily inhabitants of the West, though there are herds in several other states. More than one million elk now roam our country, due to the efforts of many far-sighted conservationists around the turn of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, only 30,000 elk were believed to live in the U.S. Early settlers saw elk as a food source and also nuisances that severely impacted croplands. There were no game laws and elk were killed with no regard to sustaining their numbers. In fact, two subspecies, the Eastern and Merriam’s, were driven to extinction. Four other subspecies are still with us—Rocky Mountain, Roosevelt, Tule, and Manitoba.
Of all the large animals in the U.S., elk are considered to be one of the most impressive. The bulls are handsome, with massive antlers, beautiful multicolored coats and large bodies. A big one can weigh 1,000 pounds or more. They’re extremely vocal, with bulls emitting their screaming bugles and cows and calves sounding like chirping birds. Their meat is delectable and is always a treat at the dinner table. But most of all, it’s the landscape they live in that makes them so special. They’re very often creatures of the mountains where you’ll need to ride a horse or hike into backcountry areas, though there are exceptions.
Elk have an interesting behavior during breeding season. Bulls round up as many cows as they can and keep them in their harem, breeding each cow as she comes into estrus. Keeping the harem together is not an easy task. Bulls engage in terrific battles as they attempt to steal a harem or defend it. It’s not uncommon for a bull to be gored to death by a rival.
Large harems are generally ruled by the biggest bulls, which are called herd bulls. Elk without harems are called satellite bulls and may challenge the bigger bull. Oftentimes when a herd bull is chasing away a competitor, a satellite bull will rush in and breed a cow. Watching these interchanges between bulls is fascinating, what with all the bugling and chasing and sometimes deadly battles.
Modern elk will inhabit high desert regions as well as lowland country, but the majority live in the upper mountainous elevations. They’re capable of tolerating extreme cold, but when heavy snow blankets their food supply they must migrate to winter ranges where adequate forage is available.
Hunting elk is typically a formidable task when you consider the profound requirements necessary to be successful. Locating elk may require days of hunting, whether you’re afoot, on a horse, in a pickup, or on an ATV. Some elk country may have good vehicle access, and some may require a backcountry trip into the wilderness. Hunters who want a backcountry experience typically have their own horses and gear or must hire an outfitter. Backpacking into the mountains is a tough challenge. It’s difficult enough to pack in a tent and supplies, and extremely rigorous to pack out elk meat which can weigh in excess of 300 pounds.
Unless your elk expires next to a road or in an area where you can drive to it, you’ll need to quarter or bone it so it can be readily transported. An elk requires the same field dressing procedure as a whitetail deer, but it’s a whole lot bigger. Dragging it on the ground as you would a deer is almost impossible unless you have plenty of help or you can slide it down a steep slope. Even a mature cow will weigh 450-500 pounds live weight. Obviously, you need the savvy and tools to reduce the carcass so you can handle the pieces.
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Jim Zumbo has hunted all fifty states for deer, has fished in most states, has hunted elk in all the major western elk states, and has hunted on four continents. He worked for fifteen years as a forester, game warden, and wildlife biologist. Jim draws on these experiences for his monthly column “All Things Outdoors.” For more information, visit www.jimzumbo.com.