Jealousy, passion, rage: It all takes place in Yellowstone National Park

  • Elk, bugling

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler
  • Mother escorts child home from school while elk scatter ahead

    Doug Loneman
 

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. - Marsha Karle was right. Hang around long enough, Yellowstone National Park's official spokeswoman warned me once, and you'll get chased by an elk.

Last week, it happened. Leaving a mind-numbing press conference in the Mammoth Hotel inside Yellowstone National Park, I stepped outside to see the sun low in the sky, and caught a whiff of sulfur from the nearby hot springs. A cow elk munched lawn clippings, literally within spitting distance.

Then the bull charged.

Antlers laid back, eyes bugged out, he roared and came at a brisk trot from 50 yards away. Shrubbery hung from his antlers, snot hung from his mouth. Along with a tourist fumbling with her Instamatic camera, I took rapid refuge beyond a road sign. A big one. No more than six feet away, the bull stopped, focused an eyeball upon us and made it swell with blood. Even the pupil turned red.

He pulled his nose back, opened his nostrils and slobbered some more. His throat quivered as he bugled a warning, followed by a series of grunts, all the while waving his willy like a baton. Manly fluids sprayed from glands and openings. Then he chased the cow, and the tourist and I breathed again.

Welcome to Mammoth, cauldron of lust. Normally a sleepy place, this is park headquarters and home to about 200 rangers, researchers and their families. It's the kind of town where a popular bumper sticker reads "Back off! I'm a scientist."

But come September, when the park's elk herd goes into rut, about 400 horny animals move into town. Elk are breeding all over the West at this time of year, and Yellowstone rings with their squeals. But only in Mammoth, the largest human community in the park, do the elk perform in public.

Jealousy, treachery, passion, rage - it all takes place on the lawns of Mammoth. Big bulls gather dozens of cows in their harems, steal them from each other, lock antlers and fight.

Smart bulls use buildings strategically, keeping their harems bunched up in corners created by a house or an office building. That way, they only have to patrol two sides to keep rivals at bay. It also leaves more time for fleshly pleasures.

While the ensuing commotion can make it hard to sleep - hotel guests often complain and sometimes check out for quieter surroundings - human life goes on amidst it all. When two bulls lock horns and shove each other right past second base during a softball game, for instance, players say they just step aside until the animals play through. Kids still go to school, but teachers know to keep popsicle sticks on hand so children can clean elk turds from their shoes.

"All they think about these days is lust," Jean Neutzel said of the elk. As an 18-year resident of Mammoth, she's had to hotfoot it behind a tree more than once on her way to work.

Everybody's got elk stories. Chief Ranger Dan Sholly said he has never heard of a person being gored by an elk, though bison hook people regularly, but some bulls get so ornery he has to anesthetize them and haul them to the backcountry. Casualties of their hormonal rage include cars, trucks, firewood piles, clotheslines and lawn sprinklers. Some have even done battle with the swingsets at Yellowstone Elementary School.

Elk often chase tourists right up onto somebody's porch, and Sholly admits that he has been chased around a car a time or two.

Bulls aren't the only aggressive ones. Stu Coleman, chief of resource management, tells how, shortly after he arrived here in 1987, he was jogging with his wiener dog, when a cow elk jumped out of the bushes and stomped it to death.

"I turned around and she was just finishing her off with a couple extra strokes," Coleman recalled, without much remorse. "It was an obnoxious little dog, anyway."

Other encounters have been gentle. One morning during last year's rut, fisheries biologist Lynn Kaeding was walking to his office and paying little attention to the spike bull grazing on the lawn. Spikes are the equivalent of teenagers, usually more forlorn than aggressive. The big bulls have chased them from their mothers' sides, leaving them a little confused, as Kaeding was to learn.

Suddenly, Kaeding recalled, just as he approached the door, "I felt a wet nose on the back of my neck." It was startling, but not threatening, and Kaeding kept his cool.

"It was hardly an attack," he explained. "I'd say it was more of a kiss."

Scott McMillion covers Yellowstone Park and the surrounding area for the Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle.




High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -