Our next North American destination is in the USA, looking for elk in all the wrong places in Colorado.
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I decided to splurge on breakfast at Estes Park’s historic Stanley Hotel in Colorado. I’d spent the last two mornings, and evenings for that matter, parked in a long line of cars alongside a montane meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d shivered through fall’s dark hours before sunrise and after sunset in the hopes of seeing a spectacular display of elk bugling. Based on fond childhood memories, I expected the elk to be huge, their calls booming and I distinctly remembered the crash of antlers reverberating through me as the bulls sought to prove their dominance. It had made an impression on me and so far, I’d failed to match that experience. I’d seen elk, but without binoculars they were mere specks alongside the forest edge. And I’d heard bugling, but it sounded distant and was unaccompanied by clashing antlers. As I nursed my cappuccino, I couldn’t help but wonder if there had been a decline in elk numbers.
“You here to see the elk?” my waitress asked has she delivered a syrupy plate of French toast.
I nodded glumly.
“Not what you were hoping for, huh?” my waitress wisely ascertained. “Have you been to the golf course yet?”
“The golf course?” I stared at her uncomprehendingly.
“Oh, yeah. Last few years they’ve been gathering here in town. Not so great for the golfers, but good for wildlife watching.”
“The golf course?”
With renewed hope, I scarfed breakfast and headed for my unexpected destination. It was mid-morning so I didn’t expect much activity, but I wasn’t about to delay. I pulled into one of the few open spots in the parking lot and rushed toward the walkway. A pair of women strolled before me casually discussing dinner plans. Obviously locals. I squeezed past and scanned the grassy fields for elk as the pathway wound in and out of wooded stretches.
At the next bend I found my trail blocked by a massive bull elk. He stood in the middle of the walk looking from one side to the other, his harem evenly divided. The females feigned oblivious to the male’s presence as they sprawled across the grass. The bull, in contrast, seemed to be on high alert. He pawed at the ground, nostrils flared. Steam rolled from his mouth as he threw his head back and bugled. My childhood memories were more than validated; the elk was indeed huge and his bugle booming.
The bushes a few meters ahead rustled then were pushed aside as a second male burst onto the scene, bellowing even more loudly. The bulls glared at each other, chests puffed out and snorting belligerently as they sized each other up. The original bull vigorously wrangled nearby vegetation in a show of bravado. A female glanced over, then placidly returned to grazing. The second bull ventured closer. The bulls snorted, pranced and assessed, then the newcomer charged. The sidewalk shook as the animals locked antlers.
The women I’d passed at the parking lot rounded the bend. They barely glanced at the wrestling beasts as they altered their course into the safety of the grass and continued plotting their evening menu. I envied their nonchalance and wished I too could simply arc around the action, but it was too late. Half a ton of angrily tensed muscle barreled in my direction. My only escape was into the bushes behind a split wooden fence. I cleared the fence just as the bulls twisted into my space.
After the battle raged off into the golf course and my heart stopped pounding in my head, it occurred to me that elk numbers probably weren’t down. In fact, their numbers were probably up. Humans could learn to live with elk in their golf courses, especially if tolerance for such an attraction potentially drew more tourists. It was heartening to see such prominent wildlife co-existing with people preoccupied with dinner, and you could hardly blame the elk for leaving the nearby national park for the carefully manicured greens of the golf course. But what of the beasts that kept elk numbers in check? Would the golf course welcome wolves and mountain lions to help keep nature’s balance? Likely not.