Fall looks pretty much the same across the country: changing leaves, plaid or flannel clothing, pumpkin spice lattes (or pumpkin spiced everything), corn mazes and hay bales on doorsteps. But at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, there’s something else to add to the list that signals the change of the seasons: Roosevelt elk mating season, known as rut.
On the first day of fall, a few park employees hopped into the Keeper Adventure Tour Jeep and headed out into the park’s 435-acre Free-Roaming Area to experience rut. It was a classic autumn morning in Western Washington, dark, drizzly, kind-of-cold but not-quite-freezing-cold and oddly comforting to Pacific Northwest natives. Plus, the cozy blankets that are kept in the Jeep for guests were an added bonus.
The pitter patter of rain drops hit the rooftop of the open-air Jeep as we drove past mountain goats (all six, together in one place!), the bison herd, bighorn rams, deer, swans and caribou until the elk were in view. We slowed the Jeep down, quieted ourselves and waited for the magic to happen.
In no time, we heard a loud, low, throaty grumble that turned into a high pitched-whistle followed by a few grunts. It was the 10-year-old lead elk bugling, asserting his dominance over the other bulls in the distance and claiming the nearby cow herd, eating their food in peace, as his own.
The bugling would start and stop, every few minutes. The distant “satellite” bulls, not quite as dominant, would bugle back, then the lead bull would send another, as if to say, “Hey I’m still here, don’t challenge me, I will win!”
At one point, the gray wolves in Northwest Trek’s central park area decided to make some noise as well, howling in unison for a few minutes. The howling mixed with the bugling bulls, the rain dripping through the tree canopy and the caws of the crows above made for something out of either a beautiful forest-y movie or an eerie scene. Whichever way you describe it, it was one of those bone-chilling, intimate moments with nature you only get when you immerse yourself in the great outdoors.
As soon as the howling stopped, we heard a crunch in the woods behind us. It was the satellite elk bulls living up to their name, seemingly sneaking past the lead bull and the cows to hang out on the outside of the group and watch. One of the satellite bulls even came a little too close to the cows and the lead bull bugled and chased his “lesser” opponent away, continuing to prove his dominance.
While we didn’t see it on our ride, plenty of park guests and keepers have described seeing the satellite bulls clashing antlers, fighting for who is more dominant to potentially de-throne the lead bull. On this particular morning though, nobody seemed to want to challenge him.
All left to himself once again, for likely only a few minutes, the elk bull started rubbing his antlers against trees and shrubs to show the cows that even without competition close by, he is the superior. The elk cows didn’t seem to care, and kept on eating.
It was our time to leave, and the cows briefly looked up from their meals as we drove off. On our drive back out through the Free-Roaming Area, we heard the bugles in the background start up again, and were left to wonder what would happen next.