The majestic bugle of a bull elk has a primal, guttural scream to it that instantly grabs your attention, even from a mile away or more. It is rips through the clean, crisp air and reverberates through the meadows high on the Yellowstone Plateau. I always look in that direction wondering if the bugler is on his way, willing to engage in possible mortal combat with other bulls – all for the right to pass his genes on to another generation. I wrote a blog article for Black Star Rising not too long ago that talked about what we could learn from the sounds of nature, and the ethereal bugle of a rutting bull elk was first on my list. Even as far back as the fall of 1979 when I heard my first elk bugle, high in the Gallatin Mountains outside of Bozeman, Montana, it struck an emotional chord with me, it was like nothing I had ever heard before.
On a fall safari to Yellowstone in 2001 I had a rare experience. My friend Jed Packer and I were heading south out of Mammoth Hot Springs before dawn looking for bull elk to photograph. His father, Bryce, and another friend of mine, Bob Sutton, were riding in the vehicle behind us as we slowly moved south, first past Swan Flats, and then south past the Norris intersection. It was a frigid late September morning with a low ground fog around Norris, but no snow on the ground. When I’m out chasing like this I keep the music off and the window down, and the heater on low to keep us warm – because I want to hear what’s going on outside the vehicle. We climbed the low hill south of Norris and headed towards Elk Park.
Suddenly out of the dark and mist a huge bull elk stood in the middle of my lane, gazing into my oncoming headlights. I stomped on the brakes and stopped in time, and we watched him let out a mighty bugle. For a few seconds he paused, then he finished crossing the road, going north, back towards Norris. We immediately pulled over and parked. Bob and Bryce didn’t want to head off into the dark so they continued down to the Madison Valley to look for the resident bulls that were easier to find – while Jed and I headed off into the dark trailing the bull. Now, I don’t believe in pursuing animals to take photographs, they can move quicker through the countryside than we can and cross rivers with ease, and rear-end shots aren’t my favorite – but this bull was huge, and his continued bugling was beyond me resisting. He had immediately vanished into the foggy darkness and left us behind. As we stood at the trunk of my vehicle he ripped off another long, soulful bugle, maybe 100 yards away. Ok, I thought, maybe we can get a distant shot of him if we parallel him – maybe crossing the Gibbon River would slow him down some.
For about 15 minutes we walked in the dark and fog, only having his bugles to guide our direction. The Gibbon River meanders through Elk Park and that did slow him down as he waded through each switchback of the river. We kept to the east side of the river, never crossing, and as the morning got lighter, the fog began to burn off. Again and again his bugle kept us moving in the right direction. Finally, he must have hesitated some because we caught up to him about a half mile north of the car. The fog was melting rapidly as the rising sun began to burn through. We continued to follow him, but he was moving slower now and stopping to browse. Jed and I moved ahead of him a short distance, getting between the sun and the bullelk – in perfect position to photograph him from.
I began to shoot short sequences of shots as he moved towards us, first feeding – then bugling to some distant bull. This was back in the days of film and I did my best to manage my shots, trying not to repeat shots of every motion and movement. Back then I was shooting a Nikon F5 body and it could rip through a roll of 36 exposure Provia in just 4.5 seconds. Rewinding took only a couple of seconds, insert a new film canister, power advance to the first frame in a second or so – and begin shooting again. My gloved fingers moved through the motions with practiced expertise, and the exposed rolls of film began to pile up in my vest pocket.
The bull had moved directly across from us when he re-entered the twisting Gibbon, the cool water rising past his belly, and as if on que the moment we had been hoping for occurred. He turned and glared at us, bugled, heard a bugle in reply, and then took to tearing up the river bank with his antlers, throwing chunks of mud into the air, all the while continuing to bugle. Again and again his head swayed back and forth as he vented his aggressions, tossing mud and thrashing the bank. It was a glorious moment to not only see and witness, but to capture on film. For many years a matted and framed 20”x30” print of that moment hung on my studio wall – until it was bought by a client.
Like most wildlife photographers I have always been drawn to large bull elk. Harem bulls are fearless in defense of their cows and they never seem to tire as they continually circle the cows, pushing them in one direction or another, pushing back the satellite bulls that are always lurking about hoping to drive off a cow or two. Many of my first few hundred publication credits were of dominant bugling bull elk, bachelor herds with antlers still in velvet, cows and calf herds, and even a few individual calf images. Two of my first magazine covers were in BUGLE Magazine, published by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, of big bulls. One of the covers still remains my largest bull elk, an 8×10 point monster standing in the Yellowstone River at sunrise. For a number of years I had credits in nearly every issue.
In 2006 I found myself cruising the south end of Swan Flats one cool September morning. Elk activity had been slow so I parked and headed out east into the forest, angling towards a distant meadow I could see through binoculars. Hiking in a Yellowstone pine forest isn’t so much hiking, it was more hopping and scrambling around fallen trees while trying to balance the big telephoto lens and tripod on first one shoulder, then the other – a habit that now causes me to roll from side-to-side when sleeping (or it could have been all the years of youth and school sports …) because my shoulders get sore now. I don’t normally go hiking into the forests or valleys of Yellowstone alone, but my desire to find some elk got the better of me – and I had my grizzly mace on my hip. When I was about a mile into the forest and nearing the meadow, but having lost sight of the Swan Flats meadows, I began to hear my first elk bugles.
At first they were pretty distant, drifting through the trees to reach my ears every minute or two – but then the sounds picked up. I was on a slight rise in a mid-forest clearing, and to my north I could see the top of Brunsen Peak through pine branches – it was a good spot for a break and some water. I set up my tripod next to some rocks and found a flat one to sit on. I had sweated through my jacket and photo vest so I took them off, and after a couple of minutes I began to cool down some. The bugling got louder. Not only did the bugling get louder, but closer – and closer still. The small clearing was maybe fifty feet across, with the close trees creating a filtered light effect as they blended into darker trees farther back in the forest. I was only a couple of hundred yards from the meadow I was aiming for, and I knew Swan Flats was a distance to my left, I could see Brunsen Peak – I was comfortable in knowing where I was.
When you spend time in the mountains certain smells draw your attention abruptly, and if you’ve photographed a fair number of wild bears, or been around them much, you come to find the smell of a bear to be an obvious odor. It reeks with a pungent stench that screams bear to an experienced set of nostrils. I can identify that smell at distance if the breeze favors me. At first it was a faint smell that caused me to look up and glance into the trees, not really knowing why … but with the second breath I knew why I had alerted – there was a bear nearby, somewhere out in the trees, outside of my vision, and I could only assume the bear was getting closer.
I wasn’t really worried, just alert. The bugling was still getting closer, and the number of bugles from different bulls had increased. After a few more minutes a roaring bull elk bugle pierced the forest, seemingly directed right at me. I put my coat and vest back on and got behind the camera, waiting to see if a bull elk would enter my small clearing – giving me a head shot if he did. Within seconds another deafening bugle came from directly behind me. I spun around and could only faintly see a bull elk run though the trees, angling past me. Then a small group of cow elk ran past the edge of the clearing, and then another, the vibrations passing through the ground and entering my feet. Now I could feel, see, and hear the elk, while still smelling the bear – taste was the only missing sensation. It was too murky inside the forest to shoot anything, and the elk were moving too quickly anyway.
The bugling was all around me, and the rutting bull elk seemed to be chasing each other around just outside my clearing. They flashed by but never stopped. I never took a single photograph. The cacophony of elk bugles reached a crescendo, and then began to fade as the herd of cows and bulls moved farther west, back towards the road and Swan Flats. It was only seconds later that I got another full whiff of bear, the hair on the back of my neck rising as I strained to look deep into the forest. I took the safety release off my grizzly mace but left the can in its nylon holster – it was time to get out of that pine forest.
Obviously, I made it safely back to my vehicle, the trip out of the forest being far more exciting than the hike into it. Maybe the close proximity of a bear had startled the elk; then again maybe the elk ignored the bear and were just in a rutting frenzy. Either way, for a few seconds – maybe a minute, I was at the epicenter of the Yellowstone elk rut. I will never forget the thick forest of pines, the volume of elk bugles reverberating through the trees, the thundering cows charging past my small clearing, me looking first in one direction only to spin back to look in another – all the time the smell of bear hanging in the forest around me.
For 27 years I’ve returned to those meadows in autumn, always anxious to hear the first bugle, always excited to shoot those first images. Over the decades there have been changes to the elk rut in the park. The re-introduction of the gray wolves in the winter of 1995-96 began a slow decline in elk numbers back towards historical populations. The carrying capacity of the park, in terms of elk, had been exceeded for a long time, and many species had suffered. Not only has the overall park forage improved, but the additional elk carcasses on the ground have fed countless predators – and one effect of that was raising the birth rate of park bears. In the mid 1980’s photographing a bear, any bear, was a great day – now if I don’t see a half dozen bears in a day it’s been slow. These days I see more red fox, more mule deer, and more beavers – while I see fewer coyotes. The big dog of Yellowstone has changed.
Fewer elk have meant fewer encounters to take great images, but each year brings different opportunities. I don’t worry about elk numbers, they will fluctuate over time and the park will continue to see changes as it works out its wild population. The gravy days of every single meadow having bugling bull elk are over, and it was great while it lasted (for us elk photographers) – but there are still meadows, active harem bulls, and that ever resounding bugle still echoes through the Madison River Valley and across Swan Flats. It isn’t the blazing aspens and cottonwoods of the Rocky Mountains that tell me autumn is upon us – it is that singular ethereal note, and the grunt that follows, that tells me the seasons are changing.