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Know the West

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


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.