Rocky mountain elk to me are a fascinating animal. Their social dynamics are what intrigues me the most. The personality traits from animal to animal vary greatly and they really are much more social than probably most would ever bet. Part of my job duties throughout the years and one of the main things that I did as a wildlife manager was to track elk with radio collars.
I had the opportunity to study these animals and to help manage elk populations to help the national parks and state agencies learn about their numbers, their movements, and their behaviors. When I first started getting involved with these animals, I was under the presumption that they were pretty basic: the males bugled, the cows mewed, and they generally moved along the landscape in a very basic way, communicating back and forth, to see where they are in relation to one another as they make their way from point a to point b and back again.
Some of the elk preferred to stay in very tight and close family groups, while others like to group up in large gatherings with many different family groups. Some welcomed other elk into their areas, while others avoided unfamiliar elk when they came into their areas.
When it came to their language, it went even deeper; depending on the landscape that they lived in, depending on the predators that existed, depending on where they roamed, they had different ways of speaking back and forth to each other. Sometimes loud, long, drawn out calls in the prairie were non-existent in the high elevation. Thick mountain timber covered regions where their calls not only didn't travel as far, but they had to worry more about some of the larger predators that existed around them.
So depending on how comfortable they could be in their given landscape, they almost develop different dialects within their language. All of this can vary depending on the time of year, how much human pressure is in the area at any given time, and these swings in their calling and their movements are actually extremely variable and very fascinating.
When I eventually moved to Montana I could tell right away that I didn't know as much about the elk in this region as I thought I would. Like most places I've been, their behavior and their way of communication is unique and one thing in particular that I'm drawn to is their migration, which on the prairie can sometimes be non-existent as they don't have much incentive to go or travel long distances when their food and their water and their habitat is consistent year round. However, in places like Yellowstone and places that have huge swings in weather from season to season, their very survival is dependent on how they move through the landscape.
Now if you ask most people what time of the year do elk bugle they would probably tell you during the breeding season during September or around that early to mid-fall time of year. However, what surprised me was how much they actually continue to vocalize and bugle well into late fall and into the winter. During a big migration like the one you see out of a place such as Yellowstone National Park, where the environment gets so extreme during the winter they're forced out of their preferable habitats and for the summer and fall, they're squeezed through these small gateways through the mountains where they have to all traverse to the winter range where they can find safety and forage for the upcoming months.
As these smaller family groups and small herds begin to come together, the large bulls have just come off of a long and grueling breeding season. They begin to meet each other face to face in a different light. All of these elk start to form very large herds for the winter and as they come together they begin to vocalize once again, establishing their dominance for the upcoming winter season. It’s vital to get to know other elk in the area because their survival will absolutely depend on staying together and while learning to live with one another again after a competitive breeding season is not easy, it’s a necessity.
This painting takes place in a real location, a valley that holds special meaning to my heart and it's also one of the major stopping points along one of the largest migration routes out of Yellowstone National Park. I'll never forget being there for the first time in mid to late December when I thought a lot of the elk activity had calmed down. Hearing these old lonesome sounding bugles in the distance, dozens of them, hundreds of them, all day as these herd bulls began to start communicating with one another as they're forced into larger herds.
However, this time instead of sounding aggressive towards one another, their calls were much different, much lower in tone, more drawn out, less raspy, and a lot more dynamic. The tones of these bugles change mid-call they change from bugle to bugle, they're much more communicative with the cows as well. They all begin to talk a lot more amongst one another, however the excitement in all of these vocalizations is almost non-existent.
I'm Chuck Black, landscape and wildlife artist based in Southwest Montana.
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