Viewing Elk: Wapiti

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Many of my topics are related to living in the mountains of S. Colorado where we have resided year around for the past 16 years. This article is about one of the added benefits that we enjoy here in the Sangre de Christo Mountains.

Our mountain range was named by Spanish explorers and Sangre de Cristo means the blood of Christ. Depending on the angle of the sun, the mountains take on different hues and colors at different times of the year. While it is true that we have several feet of snow each year coupled with long cold winters, that is incidental to the multitude of advantages of living here in our small cabin.

In addition to the intoxicating smell of fall in the air, it is also time for the rut with our elk population. Many visitors drive long distances to come to Rocky Mountain National Park or other areas of Colorado to view elk. We enjoy the elk all year except when the snow becomes too deep for them. Elk are also referred to as Wapiti which means white rump. The photo in this article was taken by a trail camera that we put out in our back yard and the photo demonstrates the rump of the elk. 

During this time of year we have to always do a visual survey of the back yard before letting our dogs out into the fenced in area. Not that elk are dangerous but we don’t like to disturb them any more than necessary. They feel safe here and we want to keep it that way and co-exist peacefully. Elk have a unique way of suddenly appearing when the area had just been empty moments before. For such big animals they seem to appear and disappear almost at will. We see elk throughout the spring and summer but mostly in the fall season when surrounding hunting pressure drives them into our area, which does not allow hunting It is unusual to go outside this time of year without hearing the elk bugle from different directions. It is much like hearing elk bugling in surround sound.

Elk have keen eyesight and many times like yesterday we will be looking out at them and they in turn will be looking in at us. We observed two separate herds yesterday; one at the side of our home and the other behind our home. There were two bulls and possibly a third bull that was on the outer fringe of the herd but kept out of sight. One bull was magnificent and had 7 points on each antler. They are huge animals and weigh upwards of 1000 pounds. They have an excellent sense of smell along with outstanding hearing and sight. They also have a distinctive odor that will often announce their presence when they are around the house but not yet visible. It is not an unpleasant odor but one that once you smell it will recognize in the future even though you may not see the elk. 

We have seen the baby elk nursing on cow elk, and we have watched bull elk posture for leadership of a herd of cows. We have seen them lock antlers and push each other around in a test for dominance for the herd. We have seen them mate right outside our window. They often come within a few feet of our home so we have a close up view of them from inside. I have attempted to get photos of them but they are generally alerted to the slightest outside movement and run or crash off and are gone in an instant. Fortunately our dogs are not barkers but on the rare occasion when they bark inside the house, the elk will run away. Elk are spooked easily.

The photos we do get are from a trail camera positioned outside to capture them without their being aware they are being photographed. We have noted that when they are feeding on vegetation they will have several cow elk on the perimeter serving as look outs for the herd. They are wary and some in the herd are always on lookout for potential dangers. When they are alerted they run off with their heads held high giving them a very regal look. In the springtime, they will keep their young in the center of the herd or keep them safely surrounded in case of a predator threat. It is amazing for us to see a huge bull running through the trees with their head held high and their antlers laid back. They are particularly agile as they run full speed through the trees and never seem to get hung up or even slowed down.  

We have watched the elk along with their behavior as they congregate around our home often. Living remotely certainly has many benefits and being able to view elk is definitely one of them. Our mountain home has the surrounding trees all trimmed up high plus they have been thinned out so the elk must feel safe as there is nothing to obstruct their line of sight. It would be very hard for predators to sneak up on them here and I can‘t even get a photo from outside without spooking them.

Our 11 acres back up to a sizable green belt and beyond that is a conservation area. Elk or Wapiti are very interesting animals which are enjoyable for us to observe from the comfort of our home. Seeing elk and many other wild animals is an added benefit of mountain living in addition to the spectacular views of surrounding mountains. Living with wildlife may not be for everyone but for us it is a perfect lifestyle because we love being able to co-habit with the wildlife.

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