In mid September in the Rockies the color scheme is dominated by gold, the gold of aspen leaves, the gold of old grass and the gold of elk in the first rays of the morning sunlight. The air is crisp. The steam from breath presaging the coming of the next season that is already creaping down the mountain tops. The air is also alive with the sound of elk bugling.
In the early morning light Jen and I are huddled above a small pond. I have a strong feeling that if we wait long enough I'll be able to make an image of an elk bull reflected in the water of the pond. So we are waiting. Eventually time will prove my hunch correct, but the morning will have an ending beyond what I could predict.
In the fall bull elk start gathering cows and calves into herds. Some of these herds will be quite large, some will be just a handful of cows. The dominent bulls are huge, they can weigh well over a 1000 pounds and their antlers alone can be over 4 feet tall. When bulls bugle they scream challenges to other bulls, proclaiming their territory. During September and October the mountains of the rockies echo with the sounds of elk.
The bull in front of us had a small herd of cows and calves. He worked constantly to hold this group together. For the most part the cows were indifferent to him, spending their time feeding and occasionally nursing a calf. Some of the cows would try wander off. The bull had an interesting trick that he used to round up the cows. He would set a course that did not take him directly to the cow, but out in front of her, he pretended to not be interested in the errant cow, but once he got out far enough he would change directions and run quickly at her, driving her back to herd. I watched this repeated dozens of times as he harased the cows into staying with him.
Finally while he was busy rounding up a cow the rest of the herd moved towards the pond. When he came back he first moved along the ponds edge, and then into the water to drink, and I got the photos that I was waiting for.
Meanwhile one of the cows decided to
take advantage of the moment and slip away. No one has ever claimed that
testerone makes males intelligent, and this bull was no exception. As the cow
headed away he chose to head directly towards her, wading across the entire pond,
instead of backing out and going around the pond. When he got to the center of
the pond every cow in his herd picked that moment to head off in a different
direction. By the time he got to other side his herd had completely evaporated.
He looked on in confusion, not knowing which way to go next
Later on that trip we saw another example of a group of cows refusing to follow the lead of a bull. We were heading into Denver to catch a flight when along the highway we saw a herd of about 20 elk. The bull was on one side of a fence, and ever single cow and calf was on the other side of the fence, laying down on the grass along the shoulder of the highway. He paced back and forth along the fence, and they very pointed looked away from him. It was a complete impasse.
Months have gone by and yet the thought of those two bulls has come back to me several times. I've also thought about an elk migration that I've watched where a bull led his herd down from the mountains to the low lands where they could survive the winter. The herd was mostly cohesive and he directed the cows and calves not aimlessly, but in a specific direction. One type of leadership involved guidence, the other involved bullying and the use of brute force. But ultimately what made the difference was whether or not the herd recognized the bull as a leader. Their consent and cooperation ultimately determined the outcome.