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Wild About Utah: the majestic Rocky Mountain elk

The Rocky Mountain elk is Utah’s state mammal for good reason. No one can deny its majesty and uncanny intelligence while being hunted, and the spine tingling bugle released in fall mountain splendor.

My introductory encounter with Rocky Mountain elk came during my first deer in Utah on the east side of Mt. Nebo. I was nearly trampled by a large bull and herd of cows that leaped over me as I cowered behind large boulders. What magnificent beings they were, dwarfing the whitetail deer I had grown up with in Michigan.

Since that time, I’ve led countless groups of students and others to view elk during the rut in Grand Teton National Park. On one occasion, we were sleeping under the stars on a warm fall evening, awakened by a minor earthquake as a herd ran through us, a wakeup call I’ll never forget!

A matriarchal society, the cow elk rules the herd other than during the fall rut. Bulls will often separate to avoid this embarrassing situation. If you’ve had the pleasure of holding a large set of elk antlers, you will appreciate the physiology that allows this amount of annual growth to produce such weapons and status symbols. Cows generally outlive the bulls by several years. Prime bulls exhaust themselves and face the harsh winter months in a depleted condition. Some won’t make it, providing a feast for waiting predators and scavengers come spring.

Elk are a sacred animal for many Native Americans. “Elk Medicine is a powerful totem animal of stamina, strength, sensual passion, nobility, pride, respect, and survival. Elk are also known as Spirit Messengers. Their antlers connect to the medicine of lightning, and channel that energy to earth. With this medicine comes instant knowing and messages from Spirit with great clarity" quoted from the book, "Animal Spirit Medicine Elk.” by Beverly Two Feathers

My spiritual encounter came on a full moon vernal evening on a ridge in Birch Canyon near Smithfield. It was unusually warm so I decided to take a moonlit stroll. Once on the ridge, large, gray forms emerged. I soon found myself surrounded by an elk herd. I moved slowly for safety, and not to startle the animals. A euphoric moment. Another came last fall when I had a large group of USU international students with me. It was after dark at the base of Teewinot. I hushed their chatter. Soon after came the hauntingly beautiful sound sliding down the slope above, bugling of bull elk. They were transfixed as was I.

A favorite book is “Wapiti Wilderness”, coauthored by Olaus and wife Margaret, capturing their lives in the Yellowstone and Teton wilderness tracking elk herds over many years, often with their young children. A revealing and enduring read I highly recommend.

This weekend I will be taking 24 international students to Hardware Ranch for a sleigh ride among the winter pasturing elk. Here they are fed hay to replace their lower winter range, which has been replaced by human activity. Yet another spiritual experience!