Though I stayed in Gardiner during my trip to Yellowstone last month, early morning trips down to the Madison plateau proved most rewarding. There I found two impressive 7×6 Bull Elk, both of whom had accumulated harems of ten cows, calves, and yearlings.
You can see one of them in the photo above. I thought of him as the campground bull because he frequented the area around the Madison campground. While I saw him on an almost daily basis, he was not a particularly cooperative subject. In fact, he proved a bit of a tease.
Before sunrise, you could see him browsing the Madison meadow and corralling the cows in his harem. One morning, he had to chase one of them nearly a quarter of a mile before turning her around and escorting her back to the herd. Another morning, he actually butted heads with a Bull Bison who, he apparently felt, was getting too close to his cows for comfort. That’s something I had never seen before and don’t think I will ever forget. The sound of their antlers and horns crashing together was so loud, I was surprised that the Elk, in particular, emerged with his antlers intact.
Unfortunately, all of this action took place early morning. In less than ideal light. As soon as the sun broke the horizon, he’d swim across the river (if not already on the other side), begin calling to his herd, then lead them up the hillside and into the protection of the trees, where they’d vanish from sight. Once he varied his routine by bedding down in the tall grass until the sun rose. Once, a few cows and calves ignored his calls and stayed in the meadow until lit by warm morning light. (I’ll post a few of those shortly.)
I found the other Elk five miles or so up the road, towards West Yellowstone, and just past the turnout for the Mt. Haynes overlook. Actually, I saw his harem first. They came out of the trees behind the Madison River, and several, anxious to get to the tall grass on the other side, took the plunge and waded across the Madison.
He postured for a while; but eventually he also waded across the river, where a rather large group of photographers, myself included, were being supervised by a contingent of docents, armed with traffic cones, determined to keep the two herds apart.
I looked for this most cooperative Elk every day but never saw him or his herd again. He, too, as the photo below makes clear, was a most impressive Bull.