Every year in Yellowstone National Park, huge bull elk perform loud and wild mating rituals. Sometimes the crazed animals pose a threat to nearby people, and much of the activity happens right in one of the most-visited parts of the park, the Mammoth village.
The rut, or elk mating season, peaks in September, and people flock to the Mammoth area to see the activity.
On a recent Friday night, rangers could be heard shouting warnings to people who ventured too close to the mating bull elk. The area was jammed with cars looking for the perfect parking spot to watch the animals. Hundreds of people milled around, watching the big bulls scrape the ground with their antlers and hoofs. Then a shrieking elk bugle whistles through the air and people strain to see which bull is calling his harem or challenging another elk.
When a bull runs across a road at a trot and toward a group of people in front of the visitor center, rangers shoo people to a safe place behind the building.
WATCH: Elk rut in YNP Friday, Sept. 10
After the danger had passed, park visitor Roger Casas, who had just run for cover said, “It’s really cool. It’s something I’ve never seen anywhere.”
Asked if he was scared, Casas said, “Kind of, I am actually. You know, um, it’s nice to be scared.”
At that instant, another bull tore open the calm night with a piercing bugle, from less than 200 feet away. Casas snapped his head toward the sound and acknowledged, “Yeah, yeah, it’s right there.”
As people ran toward the sounds of the bulls, rangers struggled to keep them safely away from the animals that can run at 40 miles an hour. Another ranger put his patrol vehicle between a running elk and a crowd of onlookers. The bull turned and squared off with the big SUV. A moment later a banging noise could be heard. As the ranger pulled away, the elk ran off and the vehicle showed the result. The rear passenger side door handle was shattered, the sheet metal on the door was torn and there were dents in the door as well.
Just minutes later a visitor vehicle leaving the park caught the eye of another big bull. It charged toward the vehicle, antlers down, but stopped short of jamming its big rack into the vehicle. Instead, it wagged its head back and forth in feints toward the slow-moving vehicle.
Speaking about park safety measures, Ranger Vanessa Vought warned that the mood of the bulls can change in an instant. She said, “Ok, this animal’s bedded down right now but if it gets up, we need to think about where we can go to take cover.”
There is something new in Mammoth this season. A sturdy metal fence, like the kind used by ranchers for temporary corrals, rings the grass surrounding the flag pole across the road from the visitor center. Vought explained that the hope is the fence will keep the cows, or female elk, away from the succulent grass. That, it is hoped, will help keep the bulls a bit farther away from the busy visitor center.
As darkness began to engulf the park buildings in Mammoth, visitors wandered away, but the elk stayed. Once people were gone the loud bugles could still be heard but with fewer people on hand, the danger levels were a lot lower. Casas reflected on the evening. He said, “It’s better to be scared. It’s safe to be scared at times like this, you know.”
In the growing darkness, a small group of rangers walked away toward employee housing. Perhaps they were thinking the same thing.