Pennsylvania’s Elk Rut: A Fight for Love and Glory
By Ed Wetschler
Sex. Anger. Confrontation. I’ve seen it all, and I’m not talking Russell Crowe; the real alpha males on this planet are bull elk during mating season, aka the rut.
It’s a six-week frenzy of moonlight and love songs never out of date, hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate.
And fear: The first time I heard a bull elk bugling, I was hiking in north-central Pennsylvania when a sudden shriek made my heart thump. Fifteen yards away, an 800-pound bull with superhero muscles and sky-high antlers was glaring at me.
His rack was sharper than those webbed jobs that moose grow, and he had none of the overlapping upper lip that makes Bullwinkle, or any other moose, look endearingly dim.
Yup, this was an elk. An elk in the mood for rutting, I might add. It lowered its head and bugled again; think Dizzy Gillespie blowing reveille on broken horn. But the message was not about waking up; it was a warning — no, an order — to go away, and quickly.
A Six-Week Binge
Blame testosterone. Come late August, a hormonal surge impels a bull elk to round up as many cows as he can by virtuoso bugling, body language, and rolling in his own waste — a ritual that drives the ladies mad.
What follows is a six-week binge of breeding and fending off rivals in places like the Rockies and, surprisingly, Pennsylvania.
The latter boasts the largest wild elk herd east of the Mississippi River, just an hour or so west of Williamsport’s Little League Hall of Fame. Moreover, these elk pursue the rites of fall right next to roads where people can park and watch. And you thought Paris Hilton was an exhibitionist?
One rite I hadn’t seen in previous trips to elk country was a fight between rival bulls. So I enlisted the aid of Phil Burkhouse, a guide who was too smart to get my hopes up: “I can’t promise that you’ll see a fight,” he warned. “Bulls can get badly gored in battles over cows, and they seem to sense that. If the bulls lock antlers they can starve to death.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe a little fight.”
The Herd is Thriving
Phil would not have any elk to track if it weren’t for government intervention. In 1867 some fool shot the last of Pennsylvania’s native wild elk, but in 1913 the Game Commission reintroduced elk — wapiti in Shawnee — to the Allegheny Mountains. Today, the herd is thriving, and during bugling season, Benezette, a hamlet in the vast Pennsylvania Wilds, thrives as well. Maybe too much.
In September and early October, when some elk treat the front lawn of the village church like a love hotel, visitors trample the locals’ yards in search of photo ops. I’ve even seen elk-spotters hit the brakes on Route 555 and jump right out onto the road, inducing some interesting encounters with other drivers.
Because rutting elk are most active at dawn and dusk, I booked lodgings at Wapiti Woods in Weedville, only a few miles from Benezette. Soon after my 4 p.m. check-in, Phil, a sturdy 60-year-old, met me there.
We drove into town, where a bison-like bull was resting in front of the church. This was a royal bull — he had seven points on each of his antlers, which weighed 45 or 50 pounds. (When bulls shed their antlers in late winter, the locals patrol the woods, recover them, and peddle them on eBay.)
A bystander told us he’d seen two bulls fighting on Winslow Hill Road, which leads northeast out of Benezette before curving southeastward to rejoin Route 555. The fight was over now, but we were going toward Winslow Hill anyway.
The state Game Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation maintain open meadows in the area because elk need them for feeding and mating.
Monitoring the Situation
Tourists had parked at the Gilbert Farm viewing area and were watching a bull and its harem (don’t flame me; that’s an official term) in the distance, but Phil drove on, turning left alongside another field.
Sure enough, 15 female elk grazed close to the road while a bull with tracking collar #35 walked around, sniffing each cow’s stern to see if it was in estrus yet.
“When a cow is ready,” said Phil, “the mood doesn’t last long, so the bull has to monitor the situation.”
After a few futile inspections, the bull plaintively bugled, and I’ll translate here for you: “Doesn’t anyone want to boogie?” No reply from the cows, but he did raise a bugle from a second bull who now emerged from the woods.
Our bull bellowed back at the interloper while the latter circled the harem, hoping to steal a cow or two. Upon getting a better look at the alpha bull, though, the intruder retreated back into the woods.
Numero uno herded a stray cow back to the circle, then resumed his sniff tests. Between keeping the harem intact and actually breeding, a bull may get almost no sleep for the six or so weeks of bugling season. An 800-pounder can lose 150, even 250 pounds during the rut. It’s a fat farm with sex.
By 6 p.m. the dirt road was lined with people aiming cameras. They were all excited, but later, at the Benezette General Store and Diner, I met the greatest enthusiast of all: Tom Murphy, a local “elk-aholic” who makes wildlife videos.
“I only hunt elk in the Rockies,” he told me. “I couldn’t shoot one around here. We’ve given some of them names. It’d be like shooting a celebrity.”
For the next few days we spotted elk, a lot of elk. Sometimes we went to official viewing areas, such as Gilbert Farm and Dent’s Run; sometimes we hiked through forests. And every time we saw elk, we witnessed a drama:
A Close Call
One evening we were peering down into a valley where, a half mile away, a bull was guarding his harem. Suddenly, what do we see driving down the fire road but a tourbus.
A few people got out and hovered by the door, but one tiny octogenarian with a red jacket and a cane hobbled toward the elk for a closer look. The bull bugled a warning, and I realized that we were too far away to help her.
Phil to the rescue: He pulled out his elk caller, an inelegant plastic contraption, and bellowed a challenge. The bull whipped around toward us, great-grandma suddenly understood that she was in the (very) wrong place, and she teetered back to the bus. Thank God.
Too Tired to Fight
Later that evening, a satellite bull darted over to some cows and nudged one away from an alpha male’s harem. I was surprised that Big Daddy didn’t even try to stop him.
“The big bull may be too tired to fight,” said Phil. “But even so, he wouldn’t have let the other bull steal the cow if she’d been in heat.”
No Wining and Dining
At another spot, another evening, a bull was sniffing each cow, as usual, when he stopped, sniffed one cow again, reared up onto her back, and was back down in about 0.5 seconds.
“That’s it!” said Phil.
“That’s what?” I asked.
“No nuzzling? No foreplay?”
“Ed,” he said wearily, “bulls are not big on wining and dining.”
A Fight for Love and Glory
On the third morning we followed the sound of a bugle into a forest. Slogging up and over a rise, we suddenly found ourselves 25 feet from a bull and about ten cows. Whoa.
We began to back away. But then another bugle startled us from the rear. A challenger approached — with us in the middle — so the dominant bull commenced to canter toward us in a rage.
We darted to the right and thrashed through a thicket; finally, I stopped to turn around. The bulls were pacing back and forth in a schoolyard “wanna fight?” manner.
Suddenly, the alpha veered toward the intruder and bashed its antlers with his rack, sounding like A-Rod cracking a home run. The bulls shoved each other back and forth like sumo wrestlers until the intruder’s rear legs started to buckle. Abruptly, the challenger spun around and fled before the other bull could gore him.
I’d finally seen the fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. And I was relieved that the fight was over.
Stuck in a Rut
Rutting season in the Pennsylvania Wilds, the wooded region east of Pittsburgh, runs from the second week of September through the second week of October. However, elk are not diligent about reading articles I write about them, so they may decide to start in a little later if the weather is hot, or vice versa.
Wapiti Woods Guest Cabins, just west of Benezette, range from one-bedroom layouts to family-sized two-bedrooms. (814.787.7525)
To contact Phil Burkhouse call 814.486.0305 or email him.
For more background information and maps, contact:
PA Great Outdoors (800.348.9393)
Pennsylvania Tourism Office (800.VISITPA)
Elk State Forest (814.486.3353)
After 20 years in the Hearst empire, Ed Wetschler resigned as editor-in-chief of Diversion, the travel-leisure magazine for physicians, so he could see some really scary wildlife. He has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Brides.com, Everett Potter’s Travel Report, Caribbean Escapes, and other media.