Elk Mating Season Proceeds in the Rockies

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It's mating season for elk, but the last thing the Rocky Mountain National Park actually needs is more of them. Proposals to reduce their numbers include putting the creatures on birth control and reintroducing wolves in the area.


And though many people do come to Colorado to ski in the winter, each fall, more than 400,000 people travel to Rocky Mountain National Park in the state to witness a little romance among the elk. It's easy to find a meadow with a couple herds because elk in the park have flourished thanks in part to the absence of wolves, which used to prey upon them. Now the Park Service is considering plans to reduce its elk population. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Here's what all those park visitors want to hear.

(Soundbite of elk)

BRADY: That's a bull bugling. The sound attracts females, and it's mean to scare away other males. Watching 750-pound bulls with huge antlers corral a herd of cows is fascinating, but to really understand what's going on, you need a guide, like Park Service volunteer Stephanie Marcret(ph). She says was just missed a fight.

Ms. STEPHANIE MARCRET (Park Service Volunteer): Those two bulls were interested in this group of cows over here called a harem.

BRADY: Marcret says the bulls are called 6-by-6's because both their antlers have six points. One bull was protecting his harem. The other was trying to steal it.

Ms. MARCRET: So they were parading back and forth with this challenging position, and then it just--instantly the one turned on the other and cracked their antlers together for maybe three or four or five minutes, and dust was flying up, and eventually then--I've never see this happen before--one of the 6-by-6's actually broke his antler.

BRADY: That bull likely won't attract any more cows this season, but Marcret says the antler should grow back next year.

Ms. MARCRET: He just walked off by himself, and he's over here pouting right now. So--and the other bull over here with the harem.

BRADY: The stronger bull always wins, says Marcret, but just a few minutes later, another bull comes along to challenge the victor.

Ms. MARCRET: Now what the fellow is doing now, he's coming from the left and he's going over to the right. And he's coming over to check these girls out, have them check him out.

BRADY: That's an important distinction because in the end, the cows decide which bull will father their calf. Marcret says they like hefty bulls with impressive antlers, and the bulls employ tricks to attract cows. For example, they wallow in a shallow pond or even their own urine to appear darker, which makes them look bigger.

Ms. MARCRET: OK. He's stealing a couple cows now. He's attempting to.

BRADY: The challenger blinks and retreats, and that's how it goes every day for about six weeks starting in late August. All this romance will give birth to a new generation of calves next spring, but there are too many elk already, and they've taken a toll on the vegetation as well as the patience of people who live near the park. The Park Service is exploring several ways to reduce the elk population. They may kill some of the animals or inject them with some sort of birth control chemical or reintroduce wolves. All three options are controversial. A decision is expected next winter.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(Soundbite of elk)

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