Must-See Wildlife Moments: Montana’s Bugle Boys

Country Magazine, 2014

Fall is in the air – and, if you happen to be in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, so is the sound of clashing antlers and bugling elk calls. Every September and October, hundreds of elk gather in the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge to protect their harems and lock antlers with the other males.

Country – the magazine for readers who love the land and life of the countryside – takes an inside look at this peculiar and fascinating annual tradition, known as the elk rut.

Some highlights from this natural spectacle include:

·Rocky Mountain elk are renowned for their antlers; they have the largest antlers among the six North American subspecies. Bulls sport massive 6, 7, and even 8-point racks that they polish until the points glow in the sun like candles in a magnificent candelabra.

·The Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge flanks the Missouri River for 125 miles on its journey across central Montana, protecting 1.1 million acres of the rugged transition zone between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. The Lewis and Clark expedition explored this section of the river in 1805, and thanks to its remote location, most of the land looks much the same today as it did then.

·Bow hunters know this place well, but they can only drool over the parade of trophy racks, because there’s no hunting allowed here during the elk rut. It’s also illegal to carry off shed antlers, which are an important source of calcium for elk, deer and other wildlife.

·After a day of rest in the cottonwood forest, hundreds of cows move to an open meadow about an hour before sunset. Each group of cows arrives with a bull that has claimed them as his harem…and defending a harem is not an easy job. The bull never stops working to keep his cows together—or bugling to warn off intruders.

·It’s fascinating to watch the posturing. When the main bull is about to charge another bull that’s too close to his herd, he stretches his neck down and forward, displaying hackles of dark brown fur. He paws the ground, sending grass and shrubs flying into the air. If the bulls fight, they crash into each other at automobile speeds, locking antlers that can weigh up to 40 pounds.

·When a bull wins one of these standoffs, he struts around with his antlers almost touching his back as he gathers his harem—bugling, of course, all the while. These displays are some of the most incredible wildlife moments you can imagine.

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