The Most Dangerous Time of Year in Yellowstone

The Most Dangerous Time of Year in Yellowstone
Rocky Mountain Elk arrive on the street

September is my favorite month to visit Yellowstone National Park. The fall colors are spectacular, the evenings are cool, the mornings lack the hustle and bustle of the summer months. But it’s also the month most fraught with potentially hazardous wildlife encounters.

For one thing, September is the heart of the elk rut. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, as a wildlife photographer, grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions, and other apex predators certainly can be intimidating, but the two animals that frighten me the most are bull elk during the September rut, and bull bison anytime. They are the two most unpredictable wild animals I regularly photograph.

Close-up of bull elk bugling in autumn habitat
Close-up of bull elk bugling in autumn habitat

When breeding season takes hold of a bull elk (wapiti), all bets are off as to what he’ll do and why. Yellowstone is the perfect place to see what I mean. The whole park echoes with the piercing sound of bugling bulls, but the town of Mammoth Hot Springs, on the northern border of the park is a central gathering for place for many of the park’s elk. As such, the quaint little town becomes an annual battleground for bulls trying to gather and maintain herds of receptive females. Love is in the air, and testosterone is in the blood.

The spectacle of two bulls battling it out in the streets is an unforgettable experience

Rocky Mountain Elk arrive on the streets
Rocky Mountain Elk arrive on the streets and lawns of Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming each fall and bulls aggressively pursue people, vehicles, and other elk while trying to mate with as many cows as possible.

Choose any evening you like in the second half of September, pick any safe perch you can find in town, and watch the ensuing mayhem. The enormous 700-pound bulls will chase each other, chase cows, chase cars, chase park rangers, chase residents, and chase shadows. And woe be to any of the above they catch.

Rocky Mountain Elk arrive on the streets
Rocky Mountain Elk arrive on the streets and lawns of Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming each fall and bulls aggressively pursue people, vehicles, and other elk while trying to mate with as many cows as possible.

Many a motor vehicle leaves Mammoth with holes punched in fenders and wide-eyed drivers wondering what the hell just happened. Many a pedestrian has been chased, and occasionally tossed high into the air. You can never let your guard down on the streets of Mammoth in September.

Sitting in a parked vehicle is no guarantee of safety, but a moving vehicle is almost certain to attract the attention of enraged lone bulls. And positions of authority hold no sway over the meanest bulls. They’ll chase a ranger’s vehicle, complete with flashing lights and blaring sirens, just as they will the ubiquitous rental cars slowly parading through town.

Rocky Mountain Elk arrive on the street
Rocky Mountain Elk arrive on the streets and lawns of Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming each fall and bulls aggressively pursue people, vehicles, and other elk while trying to mate with as many cows as possible.

The spectacle of two bulls battling it out in the streets is an unforgettable experience, as is watching them walk down sidewalks as anxious people peer out from behind glass. Park regulations dictate that you maintain a respectful distance – 25 yards in the case of elk – between you and all the critters in the park. Common sense tells you to keep your eyes open. But I can think of no other place I’d rather be – the piercing sound of bugling bulls is the sound of Yellowstone in September.

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To see more articles from Keith Crowley click here.

Keith Crowley, www.crowleyimages.com

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