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South Park, Elk Park


Musical, majestic, and primal, the harmonic sounds of bugling elk swirl all around me. I’m not up in Grand Teton National Park or on the National Elk Refuge, but on the Jenkins Ranch in Jackson Hole’s South Park area. On this perfect autumn day among the yellowing cottonwoods, I am hearing first-hand that this Land Trust protected property is good elk habitat.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been privy to such a chorus – when I lived in Montana and a friend took me elk hunting along the Bitterroot River, and in Jackson one October when the elk were on the Refuge, in close to town. It’s one of those sounds that’s instantly unforgettable, cluing you in to a mating season drama unfolding across the landscape.

Eavesdropping on bugling elk invokes a child-like curiosity, because it’s clear that these calls are a form of communication, rather than indiscriminate noises. So what does it all mean? On this special field trip to the Jenkins Ranch, Land Trust biologist Tom Segerstrom explains these calls in the context of the “harem-based” mating system of elk. During the fall rut, bull elk round up female elk (cows) into groups that they then defend for exclusive mating rights. The mature bull elk with the largest racks often have the best success with the ladies; the less impressive specimens hang out on the sidelines and occasionally try to challenge the other bulls or score a few cows of their own. Sometimes, there’s a showdown, and the bulk go head to head, charging and fighting each other with their antlers. Other times, they choose to settle or avert conflict with their version of words – bugling.

As a communications specialist and field biologist, I’m a fan – it’s a clear, concise, low-cost and practical message with incredible reach: “I’m a bull elk. This is my mating territory, and these cows are in my harem. I can hear you, and you should probably stay where you are or be prepared to fight.” I pay close attention as Chris Colligan, bugler extraordinaire and biologist at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, tries his hand at communicating with the bull elk around us to draw them in closer. One interesting looking apparatus, a reed combined with a long camo tube, mimics a bugling bull elk – a ploy to draw in bulls looking for a fight or just curious to check out the competition. Another smaller device, the “Hoochie Mama,”; mimics the sound of a cow lost or separated from the herd, or in estrus.

We go for a trek through the Jenkins Ranch, a 390-acre historic ranch owned by Mike Wardell and Paula Grosch, and Kirby and Stephanie Williams, protected by conservation easements since the 1970s and 80s. We’re not the stealthiest of groups, and one bull and his harem bark back at us, not buying it, and take off to the south. But others respond to the calls, and we get glimpses of massive, elusive dun forms here and there that come closer to check us out and then shy away. When they do, a hush falls over the group, and we are all filled with awe.

Mike’s family on the Jenkins side has a long history in the valley, going back to the turn of the century, and he is a longtime Land Trust supporter and emeritus board member. About 30 years ago, Mike recalls when this South Park subpopulation of the Fall Creek elk herd began to thrive and show up in greater numbers for the fall rut. When asked why, Mike, Paula and the biologists speculate on the possible reasons that the South Park area acts as a sort of national park-like elk park: hunting pressure is few and far between; wolves are rare; town and subdivisions are relatively far away, and there’s a good amount of protected open spaces set in high quality, nutrition-rich riparian habitat. The bulls that we hear bugling around us are likely on ranches to the south, east, and west in South Park that are protected by conservation easements held by the Jackson Hole Land Trust.

Maybe, somewhere in the harmonic sounds around us, there’;s another implicit message to be read between the lines. “I’m a bull elk. This is my mating territory, and these cows are in my harem. I can hear you, and you should probably stay where you are or be prepared to fight.”

“And by the way, this is good elk habitat. Take care of it please.”

-Leslie Steen

Disclaimer: The use of artificial lights or calls to view or attract wildlife is not permitted in National Parks.

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