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Surrounded by Elk

by Rick Lamplugh
April 27, 2016

May is the time of elk calves. And their protective mothers. Last year during our first May living just outside of Yellowstone, I learned firsthand (or maybe firsthoof) just how protective elk moms are. Here’s what happened. 

One morning, Mary and I stand shoulder to shoulder at our large dining room window, mesmerized by morning light turning Electric Peak into a watercolor. After a while, our attention is drawn from the landscape to movement in the vacant lot across the street. An elk is slowly coming into view as she climbs an animal trail that leads from downtown. First her head appears, then her neck, her chest, and finally the rest of her body. She crosses the lot, reaches the gravel street, turns, begins walking past our house, and then stops and cranes her neck to look back.  

Mary and I follow her gaze and watch with joyous surprise as a calf appears. The brown newborn with white spots wobbles on spindly legs it can hardly control. When the calf reaches the road, it manages an uncoordinated turn—maybe its first ever—and wobbles toward mom. She walks back and licks the calf’s head and body. When the cleaning is done, the calf lays down on the gravel road, which must be warm from the sun. Mom stands guard, ripping and tearing at grass, famished after having just given birth. Quiet moments later, the calf awakens and manages to arise on wobbly legs. The pair walks slowly down the road.  

“Wow, that’s beautiful,” I say, awestruck. “That calf must have just been born.”

“Yeah, I thought we’d have to go into the park to see the babies,” Mary says. “Who would have thought that they would come to us.”  

I smile as I recall tantalizing conversations that we enjoyed while imagining our move here. After living in this area for four winters, wild newborns of spring were high on our can’t-wait-to-see list. Now here we stand, basking in happiness and sunlight, watching more of this one’s shaky exploration of the world. It wobbles through a few steps, lays down, arises, and wobbles forward some more. The mom alternates between cleaning and grazing. We pinch ourselves to make sure we aren’t dreaming, that this sighting—this gift—is real. 

The mom and calf disappear for the rest of the day, but the next morning they nestle beneath a tall but ravaged lilac bush in our next-door neighbor’s front yard. And I mean ravaged. The lilac is old, unprotected by fence, and a staple on the menu of neighborhood elk. The only new growth is above where the elk can reach. And they can reach high for a plant they enjoy. This spring we have watched elk stand on their rear legs, their front legs dangling in the air, to get an extra two feet of fresh green leaves off this lilac and a nearby golden willow.  

At the moment, though mom and calf don’t look hungry. They stand and, accompanied by another female, walk across the street to the vacant lot, the calf sandwiched between the two adults. In just a day, the calf’s walk has become more solid and coordinated. For the next two weeks it will hide, nurse, and rest, on a fast track to be able to graze with mom and the herd. 

About an hour later, I am back at the dining room window, enjoying again the view of Electric Peak and neighboring Sepulcher Mountain. I fear we may wear a bare spot in the Persian rug beneath this window. When I pull my eyes away from the mountains and look toward the beat-up lilac, I spot a female elk bedded in the sparse shade at the base of the bush. Head high, ears perked, she looks up the road, past our house. I follow her attentive stare and see a woman jogging down the road in the direction of the elk. She is a tourist who has rented a house on this street for a few days. She has ear buds in and seems oblivious to the elk as she passes within six feet of it.  

If the jogger was a local, she would probably have heard the buzz about the elk around here, probably be more attentive. Our small town has its own Facebook page, an online community bulletin board. People post all kinds of things, including warnings about wildlife. Just the other day, a woman reported that she and a friend were chased by a female elk despite keeping ample distance and a fenced playground between them and the animal. Her post drew a herd of responses. Two locals who live near the sighting confirmed that the elk was chasing people because she had hidden her newborn nearby. Another person described how elk mothers in his neighborhood have stashed calves between outbuildings, in flower beds, and under porches, decks, and trucks. An old-time resident said that in her 22 years here, this season is particularly heavy with elk protecting calves.

Thinking the jogger lucky, I move away from the window and putter around the house for a while. When I’m captured by the dining room window again, I look up the road and there’s the woman returning, jogging toward home. The elk is now standing beside the lilac and staring at the jogger. The woman, ear buds still in, again does not appear to notice the elk. But that’s about to change.  

When the jogger passes the lilac, the elk charges. This finally grabs the woman’s attention; she looks over her shoulder, spots the elk, screams, and sprints. The elk, taller and maybe four times heavier, stays right behind the panting sprinter, though the animal could catch, pass, or run right over her. The woman glances back, screams again. By this time she has sprinted past our house and is closing in on the finish line, the safety of her rental. She bangs through the gate, bounds up the steps, and bends over with hands on hips like a runner who has just finished a 50-yard dash. Which she has. When her companions rush out of the house, encircle her, and ask what happened, she explains loudly between ragged sobs.  

Meanwhile, the elk—not even breathing hard and wearing that look of disdain that female elk do so well—ambles back past our house, into the vacant lot, and out of sight down the hill. I stand there, relieved for the jogger and not believing what I have just seen. When I go to share the story with Mary, I find her at the window of her music studio, ukelele in hand. She says that after she heard the first scream, she stopped playing music and watched the foot-hoof race too. 

A couple of hours later, I decide to go outside and tackle a minor repair on the cargo trailer that we use to carry our bicycles and sports gear. When I pop my head into the studio to tell Mary that I’m going to the garage, she takes her pencil from a sheet of music she’s working on and gives me a funny look.  

“What”? I ask.

“Do you think that’s a good idea with these elk around?” 

“Oh,” I scoff, “I’m just going to be right outside the garage.” 

Without a word, she gives me a little smile that says Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

As I turn to leave, I give her a look that says I’ll be darned if I’m going to allow some elk to keep me prisoner in my house on such a fine spring day. It was a long look. 

But having been reminded of the screaming sprinter, I march to the dining room window and check if the coast is clear. The only sign of elk is a female’s head in the shade of a tree in the vacant lot across the street. I see no calf. Though I have read those community bulletin board warnings about elk mothers hiding their calves, for some reason I assume that the lone elk under the tree is the one who did not have a calf yesterday. She shouldn’t be a problem; I should be safe. But just in case, I go out the back door and into the rear of the garage, keeping our nice solid house between me and any animal in the throes of postpartum aggression. 

I gather the tools I need for the repair, walk to the overhead door, hit the wall-mounted button to open it, and stand there as it rises. When it is open, I step from the shade of the garage into the full sun, squinting. Then things happen quickly. Through my squint, I see that the elk across the road is now on her feet and staring at me. Her stance reminds me of how yesterday’s elk looked prior to chasing the screamer. Ignoring what this may mean, I keep walking toward the trailer; I’m only six feet from the open door, for God’s sake. But those few extra feet must mean something to the elk, because here she comes, bounding across the road and into our driveway. I stop and stare in disbelief. She does not stop. I throw my arms wide over my head and yell, “Stop!” Now, I know she doesn’t understand English, but this is all I can come up with at the moment. The elk skids to a noisy halt—all legs locked, hooves sliding on the concrete. Her flared nostrils are about four feet from the brim of the baseball cap on top of my astonished head.   

The elk stares at me, eyes wide, ears straight up. I squint at her, my hands still above my head like a man being robbed. As we lock onto each other’s eyes, she conveys a clear, silent message: What are you doing in my pasture?  

“OK,” I whisper, “just stay right there. I don’t need to work on that trailer today.”  

The elk exhales loudly through her long nose, lowers her head, and then raises it. Did she just nod “OK”?  

“All right, lady, I’m going to back into the garage. You can have the driveway.”  

Another noisy exhale.  

Watching for any movement from her, I take one step back. No change. I  take another step and gauge from the corner of my eye that the next will put me in the garage. I drift to my right, toward the button that will close the overhead door. The elk drops her head and takes a step forward.  

“No way!” I shout. “You aren’t coming in here with me.”  

She stops, raises her head. I take another step back and my right hand slaps that button like someone trying to break the glass cover on a fire alarm. The motor hums and the door squeals as it moves in its track; the elk takes one step back. As the door descends, I drop to hands and knees so that I can keep an eye on her. With the door just a foot from closing, I see her hooves turn away and move out of my limited sight. The door meets the concrete and clunks to a stops. In the dark silence, my shaky sigh of relief resounds. I look around, wondering if that really happened. Was I just bluff charged by an elk in my driveway? What in the heck have we gotten ourselves into by moving here? 

That trailer repair can wait. I throw the tools on the workbench and retreat out the back door. Now I have to go in and admit to Mary that I was wrong…again.

Comments? Questions? I welcome your feedback. Email me at ricklamplugh@gmail.com

Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback at http://amzn.to/Jpea9Q. Or as a signed copy from the author at http://bit.ly/1gYghB4.


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