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Fall elk rut getting started in Banff

“These male elk have a singular determination of focus to breed with females to pass on their genes. They are looking at you as a threat and as competition; they’re full of testosterone and are really amped up."
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A bull elk grazes. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – The elk are getting horny.

Bull elk have been actively rubbing velvet from their antlers over the past week week in preparation for the fall rut, a time in which they impressively round up female elk into harems to breed.

Mature bull elk are very dangerous and belligerent at this time of year, prompting Parks Canada wildlife experts to warn people to keep at least 30 metres away – the length of about three buses – and to never get between the male elk and females in their harem.

“We get to watch something really amazing in nature on display right in front of us, but we need to give those animals a wide berth,” said Dan Rafla, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.

“This is about safety, but also by the end of October, bull elk are injured from fights, have lost weight and so the less we do to make them waste their energy on us, the better off they are headed into winter.”

Parks Canada issued a public advisory on Aug. 26 to alert the public that the elk rutting season is beginning, peaking in mid-September and running into October.

During the mating season, bull elk bugle and rub trees, shrubs and the ground with their antlers to attract cows and intimidate other bulls.

When bulls display their antlers and body, they are gauging each other’s fitness and ability to defend the right to breed with the cows. Sometimes, bulls will wage violent battles with other bulls for a harem.

Rafla said the distinctive sounds of the first bugle echo across the valley yet, but it’s not far off.

“These male elk have a singular determination of focus to breed with females to pass on their genes. They are looking at you as a threat and as competition; they’re full of testosterone and are really amped up. ” he said.

“They are big, powerful animals, with impressive antlers. They will be collecting their harem and defending against the other males and can become quite aggressive and can and will charge if people, or even a vehicle, come between them and the harem.”

Parks Canada has several safety tips for residents and visitors to stay safe during the elk rut.

To avoid an elk encounter, stay back at least 30 metres, watch for elk at all times and detour around them, carry bear spray, and keep dogs on leash because an unleashed dog may prompt an elk to become aggressive as they view the dog as a predator such as a wolf or coyote.

Rafla said people should act dominant by making themselves appear bigger by raising their arms or picking up a stick if an elk gets too close.

“If for some reason you get caught between a bull elk and its harem by accident and that bull charges, if you can position yourself behind a tree or vehicle or garbage bin to give you that protection, that’s what you should do,” he said.

“If you get charged and knocked down, which is very rare, don’t play dead, but get up and try to get to cover or use an object to protect yourself.”

In addition, Parks Canada asks residents to check their yards for anything that may be hazardous for bull elk, including Christmas lights still hanging from last winter that could get entangled in their large antlers.

“They tend to mark territory and display dominance by moving their heads and antlers and rubbing against trees, and so we ask residents in the townsite to be aware of that kind of behaviour at this time of year,” he said.

“Look at your yard and see if there are any loose ornaments hanging or Christmas lights left over, or clotheslines or fencing around shrubs that bull elk can rub against, and consider taking them down or putting them high up.”

Parks Canada asks that any incidents be reported immediately to Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470.

Rafla said the wildlife team also wants to know if elk are inside town boundaries.

“We actively move them out of town, so if you call us, we’ll come and haze them out of town and into their habitat to keep a healthy division,” he said.