BANFF – Tourists have been getting way too close to elk in Banff, prompting warnings that bugling bulls can be extremely dangerous as they round up cow elk into harems.
With the fall elk rut underway until at least mid-October, Parks Canada has issued a special advisory that this is a hazardous time of year as bulls flaunt their size and racks trying to defend their right to breed against competing male elk.
“There’s lot of activity with the big bulls right now… you can hear the bugling has started,” said Blair Fyten, human-wildlife coexistence specialist for Banff National Park.
“They’re gathering up their harems and protecting them.”
Everything about a bull’s display during the rut advertises his fitness to the cow elk and his toughness as an opponent.
Firstly, their rutting behaviour is trying to attract cows and, secondly, they are hoping to discourage weaker bulls from challenging them.
Sometimes, bulls will wage violent battles with other bulls for a harem.
Fyten said there have been visitors getting incredibly close to elk, not understanding the danger they could be in.
“Definitely the place that you don’t want to be is between a male elk and his group of females right now because they will be pretty protective,” said Fyten.
“You don’t even want to be with your vehicle in between a male and his group of females because they will feel challenged and charge your vehicle and potentially do damage.”
With most of their energy spent trying to broadcast just how big and dominant they are, bull elk don’t need the added stress of people getting too close or out of their vehicles, said Fyten.
“Now they have to work harder thinking that you’re potentially a threat and try and move their cows away… it’s just one more interaction they don’t need,” he said.
“By people not giving these animals space, it causes a little bit of additional stress on them that they definitely don’t need at this time of year.”
Currently, there are several harems that have been rounded up by bulls in the Bow Valley, typically hanging around open areas and green spaces.
“A lot of times you’ll see a bull with a group of 10 or 15 cows,” said Fyten.
Parks Canada encourages people to stay at least 30 metres away from elk, keep dogs on leash at all times and carry bear spray as a last stop line of defence against a charging bull.
“If you ever find yourself in a position where you’re being challenged by a bull or charged by a bull, you want to try and get behind something, like a tree or your vehicle,” said Fyten.
“If you're being charged, make yourself look big with your arms up in the air – and yell.”
While there hasn’t been any contact charges by bulls reported so far this year, Fyten said there was a protective cow elk during the spring calving season.
He said the elk, which would stand on the point on the edge of Two Jack Lake by the campground, was eventually captured and fitted with a tracking collar.
“I think she was doing that to find a safe haven for her calf, but people were encountering her and we had multiple reports of her being aggressive,” he said.
“We would go up there and haze her off and then eventually we captured her and put a collar on her just so that we could monitor her.”
However, the elk was recently found dead in what Fyten described as “kind of a suspicious death.”
A necropsy – which is a surgical examinations of dead animals – has confirmed the elk's death is related to a clostridial disease, a bacterial disease rarely found in elk.
It has, however, been documented in a handful of elk in Banff National Park and neighbouring Canmore in the past few years.
Residents and visitors are asked to report any elk incidents to the resource conservation office at 403-762-1470.