Tom Ross: Insane bugling throughout the night
If a bull elk took out a personal ad, this is what he'd say
October 2, 2005
The first time I heard the high, keening sound, I was immediately convinced it was made by a rank amateur. No self respecting bull elk would ever bust out a botched bugle like that. The noise that came from beyond the low ridge sounded like a sheep that had swallowed a B-flat harmonica. Nope, that pitiful sound had to be produced by a hunter experimenting with a new elk call.
We didn’t much care — we’d pulled into the Dripping Springs Campground in extreme northeastern Utah to fish, not to hunt elk. So, we cranked up the pop-up camper, stashed the coolers in its shade and headed down the hill to the river. As we drove through the burned out forest left behind by the Mustang Ridge Fire of 2002, I thought how nice it would be to return to the campsite at twilight to hear a real elk bugling in the distance. As I would later learn, the hills and draws surrounding our campsite were full of elk. And the fire, which had jumped the mighty Green River to burn ponderosas, piÃ±on and juniper on the south facing hillsides, had much to do with the abundance of big game.
Returning from an evening of so-so fishing, we parked the truck, and before we could open a cold beverage, we heard the unmistakable eee-eeeeeh-oooh-ooh-ah unk-unk-unk of a mature bull seeking female companionship. Think of it as nature’s personal ad: “Wanted, eight or 10 single females. Do you enjoy long, romantic walks through dense timber and eating your fill of gourmet grass? Join my herd, and let’s make music together! Four-legged only need respond. Not interested in a monogamous relationship.”
This time, I was pretty certain that what I’d just heard was the real deal, and I was beginning to wonder about the pathetic bugle we’d heard while the sun was still high. Because within minutes, we heard another bugle coming this time from the east, and then one way off on the mountain on the south side of the river. Then, another reedy whistling sound came from up on the mountainside across the road. They were all around us — it was an elk concerto!
I’ve watched elk bugling in big open meadows on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. And I’ve photographed a six-point bull as it burned more calories than it could afford to burn while trying to keep his harem together near Madison Junction in Yellowstone. But I’ve never heard this many elk bugling at one time.
We ran out of exclamations before dinner was over, and sat around listening as a luminous half moon rose in the direction of Browns Park. The bugling went on all night, and it was so loud it was difficult to sleep. The bulls finally tired themselves out just before dawn and we slept until 7 a.m. As soon as we’d gulped a cup of coffee, we set out in search of a lone bull that still had the energy to bugle. A gentle breeze was in our faces, and we knew it would carry our scent away from the elk.
After climbing two minor ridges, we sensed movement across the drainage in front of us. Using field glasses, we watched the bull following a small group of cows and calves through the skeletal trees left by the fire. Sure enough, a smaller bull came dashing into their midst and tried unsuccessfully to steal a cow. Suddenly, the breeze did a 180, the elk picked up our human smell, and they were gone.
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After the Mustang Ridge fire denuded the landscaped around Dutch John, Utah, and Dripping Spring and Little Hole, where John Wesley Powell’s expedition once camped, the first thunderstorms washed plumes of ash into the river. But land managers acted quickly and carried out aerial reseeding. The fire returned nutrients to the soil, and the grass that sprang up the very next year helped to stabilize the sandy soils and prevent harmful erosion. Now, the grass is thigh deep and so lush, it has attracted large numbers of rabbits, deer and elk.
The other morning, I lay awake at 4 a.m. in my bed in Steamboat, with cold air pouring through the open window. I heard a single bugle from high above Priest Creek Ranch. I knew that from now on, every time I hear an elk bugle, even if it’s an impostor, I’ll recall that September night at Little Hole, when the wapiti made music all night long.
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.