A Time to Bugle

September 6, 2021

The majestic sound of the Tule elk bulls bugling has begun to fill Little Lake Valley. One can feel the tension rising as the bulls circle each other to compete for the large group of cow elk and their young. It is a fascinating time of the year, the haunting sound of the bulls sounding their “bugle” to advertise their fitness to the cow elk and rest of the bull elks. The cow herd has become the ultimate prize that each large bull wants. When a dominant bull has rounded up a large group of cows, the work is not done because now that bull must keep the herd together and not allow any cow elk to wander off. The dominant bull must continue to be vigilant and fend off a small group of other large bulls that remain nearby. The other bulls try at every opportunity to take cows away for themselves. The master bull strives to be the only bull to mate with as many in the herd as he can and therefore does whatever it takes to keep other bulls, which are circling the herd and enticing the females, from winning the hearts of any of his valued cows. His experience and fighting ability, along with his strength and massive size, makes him the dominant bull.

The stately bugle is produced by extending the neck and muzzle outward and slightly upward. It is a plaintive wheezy bugle, not like a solid note from a bugle horn at all unless you are comparing it to a child practicing and struggling to get air through the instrument. Regardless, it is always thrilling to hear bull elk bugling permeate the valley, signaling the beginning of the “rut” season for our Tule elk herd.

The timing of the rut varies from year to year depending on forage conditions, with early rut coinciding with good conditions and late if the conditions are poor. The biggest bull usually comes out of velvet the earliest and will likely be the first to have control of the cow herd.

Besides the loud bugling there are two other ways that the bull elk announce they are in rut. One is described as “grimacing” in a book considered to be the best resource on the Tule elk, written by Dale R. McCullough, which is titled The Tule Elk – Its History, Behavior, and Ecology. It looks like the bull is trying hard to smell something, either a cow in heat or another bull nearby. I have seen grimacing with the head in a similar position as when bugling, but the nostrils are widely expanded, and the lips drawn back so the lower incisors are exposed. Another indication is something named by Dale McCullough as “thrash urinate.” This is when a bull rakes the ground and low herbage with his antlers while releasing spurts of urine all over the brisket and neck. The vegetation is then draped over their antlers and is shaken vigorously at each other and at the cows. At least they do not drink their urine as Billy goats do!

If the dominant bull is defeated or is killed, then the herd is split up among two or three secondary bulls. As stated in the text, in a herd of 50 cows about 12 bulls out of 29 play an important role, the others are waiting their turn as they get older, larger, and more powerful. This can take four or five years, from a spike bull to an eight or even 10-point bull.

We shall watch what happens this year though right now it looks as if the dominant bull has rounded up most of the cows and calves and has kept the others away. There are some photos of him, and he is quite impressive.