Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Want To Hear And See Elk Do Battle? Head To Glacier National Park

Elk Bugling in Fall

Elk bugling on a fall day

┬ęBert Gildart: Each fall in Glacier National Park you can hear the bulls loudly and clearly. The cry begins on a high note followed by an exclamatory low note: “Eeee-Uh!” cries a large bull elk. “Uh!” it bellows with strong, forceful notes that fill the wilds of Montana. Uh! Uh!

Soon, a rival bull, contesting the first bull’s claim of the 30-some cows gathered into a harem, meets its challenge.

What will the outcome be?

As the curtain over the drama goes up, you can have a front row seat at many areas in the park–and you can do so right now. If you join these watches what you are seeing is a pagan sort of ritual: males contesting for a harem; males warning other males to stay clear of their harem or incur a fight that, in the extreme, may result in death.

For those who wish to watch the drama an excellent area is Two Dog Flats area located in the St. Mary Valley of Glacier not far from the campground where we park our Airstream . If you wish to hike, another area to watch elk is Poia Lake, accessed from a trailhead several miles past the entrance to Many Glacier Valley. Follow it for about three miles until you break out above the aspens.

But now a note on park etiquette. Though you may be tempted to bugle in elk yourself, the park prohibits such practices and with darn good reason. Imagine watching the drama of a bull attempting to defend his harem diverted by someone blowing on an elk bugle. Some people get carried away with the sounds they can create and it can go on for hours–to the point you yourself would like to make a bugling cry for battle. Obviously, that’s not where the action should be directed, and, fortunately, there’s generally plenty of action in the meadow.

Fights among bulls often begin with just a push and a shove, but they often escalate into full-blown battles that carry them over the entire field of battle and it can go on for hours. For the victorious bull, it is a case of “winner take all.”

Despite the fact elk are now abundant, that has not always been the case. In the early 1900s, other ungulates were far more common, as author Vernon Bailey suggests in his book, Wild Animals of Glacier National Park. Wrote Bailey, “In 1895, I was told that moose were more numerous in the Park than elk.

Sometimes antlers interlock resulting in death

Antlers interlocking sometimes results in death

Such was the situation prior to the establishment of the two parks, but following creation, much began to change. On March 31, 1912, managers acquired 31 “tick-infested elk” from Yellowstone, transported them by boxcar to West Glacier, and, on April 1, released them into the park at the old bridge across the Flathead River.

For a time the elk remained on the adjacent Belton Hills, but gradually, they dispersed, their fate never really documented. Nevertheless, the number of elk began to increase. In fact, they increased to such an extent both west and east of the Continental Divide, that in the mid 1940s, park managers began attempts to reduce the numbers.

Going to the sun mtn provides  backdrop

Going to the Sun Mtn provides backdrop

To reduce the number of elk, biologist attempted a number of techniques. Park rangers used rifle grenadesand flare pistols. Flares seemed to work best, but as Ranger Fladmark, Chief in 1954, said when managers attempted further reduction, “We are convinced that elk will go where they want to go.”

Nevertheless, in 1961 a reduction program was attempted once again and four rangers were out again in January. For seven days they worked hard to reduce the herd and were able to kill 74 animals.

Despite the program’s apparent success, much has changed since those days. Managers no longer reduce elk number through hunting; rather they endorse management through nature, allowing starving animals to starve and sick animals to succumb, realizing that the carcasses will not be wasted. Wolves now feed on the carcasses, as do ravens and coyotes. Should a carcass survive until spring, it will provide nourishment for bears emerging from hibernation.

As a result of a more natural approach to herd numbers, elk populations proceed just as they have since time memorial. As always fire helps create elk habitat, and because of the fires of 1988 and 2001, elk habitat is substantial. Where once I seldom saw elk now each fall I see-and hear-them frequently.

In fact, some believe elk numbers could soon reach all-time highs-and for the elk enthusiasts wanting a spectacular view of nature, that’s good news, particularly now when bulls are fighting and gathering their harems.

Perhaps we’ll see you in the St. Mary region, where elk are still bugling and fighting. Just like the changing of leaves, out here in Montana, it’s the sound of the wilderness and another ritual of fall .



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