Elk Breeding/Rut

The Elk Rut

Bugling Bulls Elk
A bugling bull is second to none when it comes to hunter excitement.

A hunter would be hard pressed to find a more heart racing time in the woods than in the middle of the elk rut or breeding season. It is that time of year when the bulls are bugling, thrashing trees, fighting and chasing cows. Simply put, there is nothing that compares to an 800lb animal screaming in your face. The musty smell, the testosterone filled environment and cool September days combine to create an unforgettable scenario.

Elk Rut

The elk rut is very similar to that of a deer with a few major differences. The elk rut happens a month or more before typical whitetail and mule deer ruts. This is necessary as the gestation period for elk is just under eight and a half months. The decreasing daylight hours of fall began to create higher testosterone levels in the bull elk making them more aggressive, larger in size and ready to distribute their seed. This same change in daylight creates the hormonal change in the females and they begin to enter the estrous cycle. Like deer, the bulls fight to establish dominance. The bigger and/or meaner bulls (called herd bulls) typically have a large harem (group of female elk), while the smaller bulls (called satellite bulls) do not have any cows. Unlike whitetail deer, elk gather up a group of females, keeping them together until they are ready to breed. For two to three weeks the herd bulls continually fend off the smaller bulls and try to keep their harem in tact. After the cows come into estrous and have been bred the rut will come to a close.

Rut Activities

Bull Elk Fight During the Rut
Bull elk fight during the rut to establish dominance.

During the rut bulls feed less than they do any other time of year. They spend more time getting out pent up aggression and chasing females than replenishing their spent calories. Bugling is the sound that people associate with elk hunting, strangely enough they only make that sound for a couple of weeks per year. It makes a big impression to say the least. Bugling is more than simple communication. Bugling is another criterion of establishing dominance over other bulls and also with the cows. Sometimes, the lower and more guttural the sound of a bugle, the older and larger the bull may be and cows will often join the harem of the biggest sounding bull.

Bull elk often find wallows during the rut. A wallow is a water hole of some sort, usually not large, that the bulls will roll in. Rolling in the mud serves a few purposes: 1.) the dark mud makes them look significantly "tougher", 2.) It helps distribute the scent from the glands to their whole body and 3.) it helps cool them with all the rutting activity. Just most deer species, elk rub the velvet off their antlers at the end of August but they also whip and trash trees, brush or anything else that they feel is in their way. Rubbing also leaves their scent in the area to allow both cows and bulls that they are in the area. It's not uncommon to see trees 4" in diameter completely broken off.

Fighting happens more at the beginning of the rut than the rest of the time, probably because the younger bulls realize pretty quickly who is boss.

Cow Elk During the Rut

Bull Elk Chasing Cow Elk
For about three weeks, cows spend the majority of their time running from testosterone crazed bulls.

While cow elk are the driving force behind the rut, they do their best to go about normal Fall activities. That is eating as much as possible to build fat for the winter and to tend to their calves. Unfortunately for them they spend a good amount of time being chased by bulls and being herded away from smaller bulls.

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