I could hear the two bulls bellowing at each other as I hiked down the familiar slope, through the ponderosas, along well-worn game trails, and toward the edge of the Valle. As I got closer to my intended ambush, the wraith-like calls became more frequent and louder, and echoed along the ridges above me. In a light rain, I took shelter, and cover, under two large pines, and there I waited. With a clear view across a shallow ravine, in the shadows of the trees, and with the tall grasses of late summer in front of me, it was a good spot. Over the seeded heads of the grasses, I already could see a few elk across the ravine, just into the trees on the other side. If I kept still and they didn’t catch my scent, I expected they would emerge from the trees and move down the ravine right past my ambush. Soon enough two cows and their two calves came out into the meadow, and I could hear their bull pushing the rest of the harem down through the trees. First, another six elk emerged, then ten, then twenty. They just kept coming.
The harem included at least 20 cows and about the same number of calves. After the last cow emerged from the trees, I could hear the bull raking his antlers on some branches, and then finally, I could see him through the sparser covering on the meadow’s edge. When he finally left the cover of the forest, and came out into the grasses, I could see he was a beast. With seven points, and easily five feet at the shoulder, he walked with a purpose, and with confidence, each step a statement to any other animal that might be watching. He wore a beautiful cream-colored coat, a longer dark-brown mane, and his antlers stretched nearly half his total length. And as he walked through his harem, I could see his shoulder muscles rolling under his coat.
He pushed the harem down the slope and further out into the meadow, and soon enough, they were moving in my direction. As they did, to my delight, the sun came out. With another bull calling out in challenge, the Beast kept his eye on every cow and calf, herding them into a line, pacing that line like a drill sergeant, and corralling any strays. Every few minutes, the challenger would call out, each call closer than the last, and the Beast would turn toward the call and bellow back. With his harem in a tight group in the middle of the meadow, the beast started moving toward the challenger’s calls. He looked like he would welcome any fight, so I was beginning to expect a confrontation. But just as I was starting to imagine how to capture the action, the cows all suddenly raised their heads and looked out into the Valle. And then just as suddenly, they were all stampeding back into the trees. I turned to see, far out in the grass, three coyotes traipsing across the bottom of the Valle Grande. The fight would have to wait.
Elk; Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico
NatureWildlifeDeerElkJemez MountainsValles Caldera National PreserveNew Mexico