Estes Park, CO

The elk are mating in Colorado, and it’s a sight to see

Claire Cleveland

By Claire Cleveland / NewsBreak

(Denver, CO) Elk mating season is in full swing. And there are lots of opportunities to see the elk rut throughout the Rocky Mountains.

The elk rut lasts from late September to mid-October in Estes Park. Hundreds of elk will bugle, fight, court and mate.

“It’s one of nature’s greatest spectacles,” said Andy Holland, Colorado Parks and Wildlife big game manager. “Elk have amazing breeding behavior -- all the stops are pulled when it comes to mating and breeding.”

Bugles, the loud calls made by bull elk when they try to attract a mate define the showy mating season. People from across the country and worldwide visit the Rocky Mountains to catch a glimpse.

Elk Bugle video:

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The timing of the elk rut is essential to ensure calves are born at about the same time, to prevent predators from picking off new calves, and so the calves are born when it’s not too cold but also not too late that they can’t bulk up before winter.

Speaking of bulk, elk spend all summer building up their fat reserves to survive the winter, but they hardly have time to eat during rut season, Holland said. So they lose a lot of weight and then have to graze and forage to plump back up for the cold winter months.

“It puts a lot of stress on the bulls to try and put on enough fat to survive the winter,” Holland said.

Bulls also experience a 1000-time spike in testosterone levels during the rut, which gives them the drive and the energy to pursue a mate. It also makes bulls extremely dangerous.

“Keep your distance,” Holland said. “They're incredibly fast. They’re very aggressive. I wouldn’t expect people to realize how fast they can be because they’re so large and they don’t usually move around that quickly. But you can’t even come close to getting to your car quick enough.”

For more tips on safely viewing elk rut, check out this guide from the National Park Service.

One way to tell if bulls are rearing up for a fight is if they start marching and parading back and forth parallel to one another, but actual fights are rare as the animals can be seriously injured or killed, Holland said.

Looking to see elk for yourself?

There are lots of opportunities including in Estes Park. Holland said Rocky Mountain National Park is a great option too because there is no hunting, the elk are easier to see than in areas where they stick to the woods and hide more. Holland recommended bringing binoculars to get a good view and keeping a safe distance.

At the beginning of September, closures started in Rocky Mountain National Park to prevent harassment and disturbance of mating elk. The closures also ensure visitors have opportunities to see the animals in action.

The closures will be in effect through Oct. 31 and affect Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, Harbison Meadow and Holzwarth Meadow.

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Claire Cleveland is a Denver-based freelance writer with a background in health and science reporting. She's covered the pandemic extensively and local news in Colorado. Previously, Claire was a reporter and producer for Colorado Public Radio.

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