Editor's note: Is there any other national park like Yellowstone when wildlife "love" seems to be going on in every direction you look in the Fall? With elk, bison, and bighorn sheep in the throes of rut, this can be one hormonal-rich park, as Guest Writer Beth Pratt describes.
Wildlife watching in Yellowstone National Park takes on a bit of a voyeuristic flavor in the fall, as the park’s famed mega-fauna embark in the pursuit of romance during their annual ruts in an often public spectacle that rivals any of the drama on The Bachelor. Visitors can hear the loud thunderclap of bighorn sheep clashing, the raucous bugling of bull elk, or the deep grunting and bellowing of bison—all performed in pursuit of a mate or mates.
The Elk Dating Scene in Mammoth Hot Springs
The magnificent bull elk dominate Mammoth Hot Springs for a month, and visitors can watch the spectacle of two bulls charging at each other across the terrain and hear the loud clatter of antlers as they wrestle for dominance. Bull elk spar frequently to gain access to cows in order to build their harem, yet serious injury is rare. Elk also challenge rivals and court females with their loud, musical bugling—and awaken guests at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
The elk rut usually begins in early September and ends in mid-October. During this time, park rangers patrol tirelessly to keep visitors from getting too close to the elk (yes, amazingly, people do try!). Visitors foolish enough to disobey the park’s regulation of keeping a 25-yard boundary soon find themselves confronted with the dangerous reality of a cranky, 700+ pound bull elk yielding 60 inch long antlers.
Bison Amour in Hayden Valley
In late July to early August each year, the park’s bison journey to two main breeding grounds in the park, one of which is the scenic Hayden Valley. The Yellowstone River meanders gently through the soft, verdant grasslands in Hayden Valley and this pastoral setting is the perfect place for a romantic interlude—even for bison. Bison bulls, who remain solitary or in small bachelor herds for most of the year, seek out females during the rut by grunting, bellowing, wallowing, and fighting with the competition.
Visitors driving through Hayden Valley during the rut often encounter large bison bulls walking along the roadside, bellowing loudly and pursuing a nearby female. Once a bull finds a willing cow, he remains loyally by her side and drives off other rivals until she’s ready to mate, then abandons her to begin another flirtation. The next spring, usually in late April or May, bison cows deliver a calf that some park visitors mistake for “a little orange dog” because of its distinct coloring.
Big Horn Sheep Courtship in the Northern Range
In perhaps the most dramatic display of courtship, bighorn sheep rams gather in November in Yellowstone’s northern range to compete for breeding rights. The rams “huddle” in a group showing off their horns and sizing each other up. If a subordinate does not concede, a dominant ram may assume the “low stretch” stance that indicates power. Then suddenly, the two rams may surge toward each other and clash in a dramatic collision of heads and horns that result in a gunshot-like report that can echo over a mile.
This horn-to-horn combat is intense—some clashes can last up to 24 hours and the animals can collide at speeds of over 40 mph. The contests leave bighorn rams bruised and battered, yet serious injury is often avoided by their natural shock absorption system, which includes a honeycomb structured horn base, a thick skull, and a perfectly aligned spine. This system is so effective, automobile manufacturers are studying the bighorn in order to design better collision resistant material for automobiles.
Please be safe while viewing Yellowstone’s wildlife. According to park regulations, visitors must remain 100 yards away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards away from all other wildlife. The National Park Service has a series of videos on their website that demonstrates what can happen when visitors get too close to the animals.