• My latest book available in paperback and eBook formats

  • Available from Amazon paperback or Kindle

  • Updated w/double blind study results. Ebook or paperback

  • New updated edition available NOW!

  • Recent Posts

  • Tracking Footprints

  • Archives

  • Top Posts

  • Pages

More elk calves and a lesson in Life and Death

“…that feeling in your stomach of “I don’t want this to be happening.” You try to escape it in some way, but if somehow you could stay present and touch the rawness of the experience, you can really learn something.”  Pema Chodron

Yesterday, this morning, and today were all one large event, the event that is Life.

In my post yesterday, I wrote about the dead elk calf.  This morning the mama spent a long time bugling for her calf behind my house on the top of the rise…a mournful sound of a mother calling desperately for her newborn calf.  I went outside and watched her.   I felt tremendous sadness for her.  I knew she didn’t know what happened to her calf, just that it was gone.

It reminded me of a time two years ago in the spring in the Beartooths.  A car hit and killed a cub of the year.  The grizzly mom spent a week roaming and calling for her cub.

There is nothing so sad in the animal world as that sound–a mother calling for her baby that is dead.  But I felt it was important for me to allow myself to feel this elk mother’s cries fully, and not push my own feelings away, even though it was difficult.

I stayed with her and listened.  And those bugles were low, guttural; not the high pitched sounds you hear in the fall from the elk.  Her cries came from a deep and ancient place, not unlike the cries of humans mourning intensely.

Today was the first really warm, beautiful day.  I decided to go up to a favorite spot, a place that overlooks a deep canyon, and have lunch there. (Unfortunately, I took my cheap camera) Its about a 2 1/2 mile hike up to the top of this ridge-line.  You pass through a forest until you top out at some high meadows.  At the end of the meadows are sheer cliff drop-offs.

View from afar of the spot where elk is. This is the meadow and cliff

As soon as I broke through the trees and began crossing the meadow to the cliff edges, I spied a lone elk.  She seemed a bit nervous at my presence (not unusual) but then I saw something else.  A calf lay nearby.  A wet calf.  She had just given birth and probably just finished licking the calf clean of the afterbirth.  I made a large circle and hid behind some rocks out of the wind.

Mom had taken off and left her baby there, probably hoping that I’d be more interested in following her and so not find her newborn.  I watched that little guy for about an hour.  Within about 10 minutes, he tried to stand up.  He struggled unsuccessfully with his weak legs.  Exhausted, he spent another 10 minutes resting.  But soon he tried again.  This time, although he still couldn’t stand up easily, he was getting stronger.

Keep trying...

First attempt to stand

I had a good feeling about this mom and her choice of a birthplace.  High up, the only entrance was on one side.  She placed the calf near a rock that had similar coloring as the calf.  And not too far beyond the calf was the cliff, where no predator could come from.  On my hike up through the trees, I saw no grizzly sign.  Grizzly sign was on the other side of the canyon down below near the creek.  If this calf makes it past a few weeks, he’ll be too fast for the bears.  But then he’ll still have to contend with wolves, who do frequent the area.

Cliff edge near where calf lies

If he makes it through a month or so, when the snows melt, his mom will probably take him up to the Absaroka Divide and head to the Lamar.  He’ll have a good year this year, more similar to what his ancestors used to experience before the long drought, because the grasses will stay greener for longer.  Then next January I might see him again when he migrates back down here for the winter.  He’ll be taller but still a youngster and still vulnerable to the wolves and the deep winter snows.  But he might just be one of the tougher ones, the lucky ones, and live into his adulthood.  Live to mate and make more elk and not be caught by a hunter’s bullet.   I surely hope so.

Grizzlies and elk calves

Its unusual to see  the Cody backcountry herd grazing every morning and night this time of year.  Usually, by now, they’re headed over the passes to calve in the Lamar. But the snows in the high country are still too deep and the melt hasn’t even begun.

I’ve been watching this small herd from my window.  They come early morning and evening.

Elk May 20, 2011 still in Sunlight

The other morning I spied a lone elk.  I watched her for a few days going back and forth between the herd in the pasture and a patch of willows in the nearby forest.  She’d disappear into the willows and the forest by the road and seemed concerned.  I had a feeling she had a calf hidden in the brush there.

The lone cow with deer

But last night something strange happened which made me wonder if I was correct.  Instead of just this lone cow wandering over to this marshy area, a cadre of about 7 elk wandered over there with her and disappeared into the forest.

So this afternoon I took my bear spray and cautiously investigated while the elk were grazing.  In a muddy area of the creek, now widened by slash and blow downs from the logging last year, I spied a grizzly track moving in the direction of a small clearing.  A few yards up from the track, there was the calf, completely consumed.  Only the skin and legs remained.   It had been predated right where it had lain, for it was in a heap in the grass by a freshly fallen spruce bough.  I inspected the little legs and skin.  The small thing was deftly and perfectly skinned.  Certainly a bear, and my guess is it was that grizzly who made the track just a few feet away.

Grizzly in the Lamar feeding amongst the willows

I had hoped to spy a living calf, so I had a sicken and sad feeling.

Six out of 10 elk calves are predated within their first 10 days.  They are fairly helpless for those first two weeks.  Many people say the calves don’t have a scent, but I would disagree. I haven’t seen tracks in those marshy areas and this griz went directly to that calf.  The calf was not too far from the road, but at the edge of a wide swath of logged forest that includes a lot of swampy areas.  That bear did not wander about through the open woods looking for an elk, but clearly walked from the nearby meadow into the woods right to the calf.  Handling the calf’s skin, I could smell it on my hands.  It doesn’t have a strong smell, and staying on the ground low keeps it’s smell down.  But it does have a smell and to a grizzly, I’m sure its pretty strong.

I was in the Lamar Valley a few days ago and within an hour saw three grizzly boars in the valley. A friend told me in 2 days she saw 20 bears just in Lamar Valley.  The Lamar is becoming a favorite of the grizzlies.  I have wondered if these migratory elk, who usually calve in the Lamar, might have better success here.  Certainly there are bears here, but not as many as in the Lamar.  That’s a question I can’t answer.  Unfortunately for this little elk, it wasn’t the case.

And one more question I had:  Why, last night, did I see 7 or 8 elk accompany mama elk into the willows, not a route the elk ever take around here?  Was that a show of sympathy and support?  After that, the lone elk has not been alone anymore, and I haven’t seen her nor any of the others wander into the willows.

My heart felt saddened for that little calf and her mother.  But I can’t blame the grizzly.  How could I…I went home and enjoyed a BBQ’d bison steak myself.

Sleeping grizzly.

Mothers: Bears and Elk

Last week an elk calf was killed right in the little meadow by my house.  Koda discovered the leg, lying in the disturbed grass near a solitary aspen.  The mother elk had been hanging around all morning, calling and calling for her baby.

Now, almost a week later, I heard her early this morning, still calling.

Cow elk sniffs where calf was killed

It breaks my heart to hear her.  I saw her last week quite a lot, coming closer and closer into the meadow, unperturbed by my presence or the dog, obviously confused as to where her baby might be.

Koda and I walked the trail through the little adjacent forest.  Fresh black bear tracks, a mother and her cubs, had wandered amongst the springs.  I set up my trail camera and found another leg from the calf.

The little elk had disappeared almost without a trace.  I’ve walked and walked around the area looking for more evidence.  One leg in the meadow; one in the woods; where’s the rest of her remains?  She barely lived, barely had a chance.

Yet, maybe these two little bear cubs will now have a chance.

Black Bear cubs

Its bear hunting season and although you can’t shoot a mother or her cubs, the young male whose been hanging around, digging for roots and insects, is fair game so to speak.

Its sad, but yet true.  One life feeds another.  I sing for the bear mother.  I cry for the elk mother.  One does not negate the other nor hold more value than the other.  Its’ the old and ancient dance.  Don’t be fooled.  Despite all the latest new fangled technologies, extended life, genetic transformations, new pills, greed on Wall Street, fat cat politicians and the usual rhetoric, we too are dancing.