PLEASE Don’t Pet the Elk

We’ve all heard the stories, Woman Attacked by Bison After Approaching Calf, Man Painfully Learns Why You Should Never Pet A Wild Bear Cub, or the one most likely to strike a chord with residents, Tourist pets bull elk in Colorado, locals warn against it.

Photo credit: Cora Leach

A photo recently surfaced on social media of what looks to be a group of people, including a child, advancing on a large group of elk in Meadowbrook along 202. The herd is bunched up, alert, looking poised for flight. It disturbed many of us who know this time of year is peak rut season and that the elk can be very dangerous.

Not knowing too much more than that, I decided to ask a friend for more information. Daryl Ratajczak was the Elk coordinator for the State of Tennessee for seven years and the Chief of Wildlife and Forestry for five. He also founded Wildlife for You that offers information and training on wildlife issues through live online classes.

I asked him about approaching elk in general, throughout the year. Is that ever a good idea? He said during most of the year; an elk would simply run from you. An adult male can range in weight from 600-800 pounds, and adult cows weigh in at 400-500 pounds, so it’s never a good idea to get too close. However, this time of year, when the animals are in rut, the males become exceedingly dangerous.

So, what is rut? It is the term for that particular time of year when elk mate. Around the country, it can start as early as the end of August and end as late as November, but in Washington State, it begins around the time of the Autumnal Equinox and lasts for a month.

Mating for elk is not just a one and done process. First, bulls gather cows and calves into small groups called harems. These groups may be as small as five or as large as twenty, with the average being ten to twelve. The male’s bugle to attract mates, the females can tell how large and old the bulls are by their calls and then aggressively guard their harems against other bulls.

Young adolescents will form bachelor groups and stay close to the harems, but older males, satellite bulls, fight for breeding opportunities. Daryl explained the lead bulls with cows spend their entire season of rut fending off satellite bulls who are trying to take over. The bulls can be very defensive, territorial and may even defend their harems from people.

So, I asked him what a safe distance from which to observe the herd is? Typically, the herd hangs out at least 300-600 feet from the field walking paths, but people LOVE to get closer. So, how close is close enough? Ratajczak says the rule of thumb is to get no closer than 120 feet. The advice is to use zoom cameras or binoculars to avoid disturbing these rather large animals and watch for signs your presence is troubling them. If it is, give them more space. One local expert remarked that in the picture, the herd is all bunched up and looked to be in distress, signs the people in the photo should have noticed and respected.

So, what to do if you didn’t respect that space or managed to bumble up on one of these creatures? Stay calm and back away while talking loudly to make your presence known. If an elk charges you, run to the nearest solid object, such as a tree, and hide behind it. If you get knocked down, curl into a ball and protect your head and neck with your arms. The animal is trying to scare you off, not kill you. When it thinks you are no longer a threat, it will likely leave the area.

Daryl told me his tale of getting too close. He was doing an elk census one night late and came across a group in the dark. They ran down a short hill, and he bugled out to see if he could get a callback. Thrilled when he did, he called again only to be warned by another worker that there was another male much closer he may want not want coming much closer. Yikes!

During rut the elk can be less guarded and engage in all sorts of behavior including bugling, sparring, and mating. It can be quite an interesting sight to see. Just please keep your distance and let the local wildlife stay wild.

Photo credit: Don Detrick

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  • We were camped at Yellowstone during rutting season one year. The females were all over the campground trying to get away from the males. And the males would bugle all night long. It was an interesting time to be camping. It was hard to stay away from the females as they were wandering all over. In the middle of the night on my way to the privy, I had to dodge the elk.

  • Living Snoqualmie