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How Things Turn Out

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Sometimes things do not turn out as we had hoped.  Now that I think of it, make that a lot of the time.  Maybe most of the time.  Ask any of the fifty percent of Americans who have been divorced at least once about this.  Or any of the many whose retirement accounts went up in smoke over the past five years.  “Plan ahead”, we are told by everyone from parents and teachers to investment counselors, but not infrequently our plans come to little or nothing.  All of this was memorialized by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, when he wrote,

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy! 

In less poetic language, a famous military commander is reputed to have said before the Battle of Verdun, “A battle plan is always perfect until the battle starts.”

Life seems at times to take inordinate pleasure in raining on our parades.  The parade of elk and antelope that I had anticipated watching on the first of September turned out to be an intermittent procession at best.  The hundred head of elk I had planned to hear below the barn in the middle of the night for many nights never materialized, and the antelope who had spent many days along the county road one year ago were mostly no shows, too.

Which is not to say these animals were not around from time to time.  Indeed, of the fifty-two days from the first of September to the beginning of hunting season on the twenty-second of October I saw elk and/or antelope on thirty-five days.  Nonetheless, it was always “now you see ‘em, now you don’t”.

IMG 0188On the first day of September I saw one medium size bull elk and fourteen cows cross the county road about four hundred yards below the house, and thought that things were beginning to happen. Then in the next ten days I saw two elk scurry across a haymeadow above the house, and two one year old spike bulls wandering by below the barn.  That was it. In the next seven days I saw two bulls cross the road, and heard the first bugling somewhere off to the south.   For all I know it was a bow hunter trying to lure elk in to his stand.  I met up with two bow hunters who had been looking for elk in the timber a mile to the west, and they said they had seen a few cows, but heard no bulls bugling at all.  Where were they all at, we wondered.

By the twentieth I was beginning to see small bunches of elk within a couple of miles of the house, and on the twenty-first I was awakened about four in the morning by elk bugling just below the barn.  They were gone by daybreak, and did not come back.  A few antelope showed up over the course of the next week, but the most I saw together was fifteen.  A year ago I photographed a group of forty from the county road for several days around the first of October.  The elk must have worn themselves out bugling on the twentieth because none of the ones I saw at the end of September were making any noise.  Three bulls were herding a group of about twenty cows along a creek on October the second, but they were as quiet as monks and nuns on their way to church.

Things began to pick up for a couple of weeks after that, but although we saw as many as a dozen bulls together in a group of fifty elk only two of the larger bulls were making any noise.   On the ninth my daughter and son-in-law and I went about a mile upcountry to intercept a group of about twenty elk as they came from a haymeadow to the north.  We spent about an hour listening to the bulls scream at one another as they moved through a willow bog before going into the timber on an adjacent hillside.  All the elk were within a couple of hundred yards of us, and I said as we headed for home when the show was over, “This is about as good as it’s going to get this year.”

The bulls were still bugling as we walked down the creek, just to let us know they hadn’t forgotten how, I guess.  We were getting toward the end of the rut by then, and though I continued to see elk until the twenty-second their behavior remained as it had been for the past several weeks.  Once the general hunting season began the show was indeed over.  The elk scattered, and were hardly to be seen for the next five weeks.  The antelope had long since departed for the lowlands.

So things did not work out as I thought they might on the first of September.  I was not dismayed by this because this sort of thing has happened many times over a number of decades.  I was and am aware that wild animals do what they want, and their behavior, though predictable in a general way, is rarely predictable in any specific instance.  In fact, so little is known about their individual behavior over the course of their lives that the best we can do is generalize.

We know, of course, that human behavior varies greatly from person to person, and we know that dogs and cats, for example, are individuals with discrete personalities.  These vastly different personalities account for the difficulty of training, let’s say, a dog.  Training dogs can be so demanding that it is often beyond the abilities of most humans, and in the end a lot of dog owners just say to hell with it, and let their dogs run the show.  Remember this when your neighbor’s dog jumps up on you for the umpteenth time.  When it comes to wild animals we know, well…pretty close to nothing.  Which is not to say that there are not a number of people who know a good deal about elk, but compared with what there is to know about elk they still know pretty close to nothing.

Elk are highly social animals, and they like to stay in touch with one another.  When they are together feeding they frequently make squealing and mewing sounds which cannot be heard from aIMG 0183 distance, but if one is within a few hundred yards of them it quickly becomes apparent that they talk to one another a lot.  For what reason?  Security, most likely.  When disturbed by a potential or real danger the sounds become more agitated, and when alarmed they make a sharp, explosive exhalation of air that is known as a bark, and that sound is audible from a considerable distance.  If a herd is put to flight and they are scattered in the timber, for example, the normally quiet conversational vocalizations become longer and louder as mothers and calves try to locate one another, and the herd attempts to stay together.  In general, elk like to be together, and even the bulls who often wander apart from the herd tend to be together in small groups.  Elk, I would say, are not fond of being alone, and for good reason.  Being alone is dangerous, and the group provides security.

Nonetheless, elk can be found alone from time to time.  Since elk as a whole are so highly social it is hard not to imagine that lone elk must have something wrong with them.  Perhaps they are ill, or have been bullied so much they have decided to go it alone, but I have always thought that maybe some elk just have a preference for being alone, like some people.  Their personalities lead them in that direction.  Maybe they are just off by themselves for the hell of it, out to see some sights without fretting about what the other elk want to do, who knows?  The point here is that individual animals of any kind have individual personalities.  Some are bold, some are timid, some are aggressive, some are docile.  Some like to romp and play, others are more reserved.  Just like humans, and dogs  and cats, not all elk are the same.

Likewise, elk in a group, though they are animals of habit, do not always do the same things in the same ways in the same places.  Indeed, high predictability of behavior would lead to higher rates of predation, something I assume that elk are not interested in, and any number of things can affect a herd’s behavior.  Weather and availability of forage are always an issue.  Predators, too, are a factor.  Nothing can convince a bunch of elk to move on quicker than a couple of guys with guns fumbling through the woods in the middle of hunting season.  Wolves, I suspect, evoke the same response any time of year, but until six years ago wolves were not a part of life here, and aside from humans the elk lived in a relatively predator-free environment.  Now no one knows what effect wolves may be having on elk movements,  though “it must be the wolves” is a not uncommon reason given by many for any thing the elk do that seems out of the ordinary.  Elk behavior, however, has always seemed to me to be much like the weather, which is to say not often entirely predictable, and so variable as to nearly preclude the use of labels such as ordinary or normal.

None of which deters people from thinking they know what a bunch of elk might be up to, but that, I suspect, has much more to do with any given individual’s need for attention than it does with their knowledge of elk behavior.  Having spent nearly four decades around elk means I have also spent that time around a lot of people who thought they knew a good deal about elk, and few have been reluctant to share their wisdom with me.  Alas, most of that wisdom revealed more about humans than it did about elk.  Some of the tales were out and out fabrications, and the spinners of these yarns knew they were fabrications, and knew that I knew, to boot.  Others were more sincere in their observations, but no more accurate.  Such is life in the human herd.

IMGElk––and every other critter on this planet, for that matter––live on the other side of a cognitive mountain from humans.  They know what they know, and we know what we know, but we share little.  I am barely able to understand the various doings of my own species let alone have any idea why the elk did what they did this year.  I can think of all sorts of causes, or combinations of causes, but cannot be certain of any of them.

Maybe, as many around here have surmised, the wolves have had an effect on how the elk behave.  Maybe the large herds have split themselves into smaller groups, and perhaps the bulls are less boisterous in order to call less attention to their presence.  I have even heard some speculation that the presence of so many bow hunters with their elk calls in the woods has made the real elk less energetic in their bugling.  Too, the weather this year was unusually wet and cool, and the forage in the high country was abundant.  Perhaps the elk were scattered across the upper reaches of the mountains enjoying this bounty, though several walks in that country turned up no more elk that we had seen here.  Maybe they just did things differently because they felt like it.  Humans do that all the time.  What did you do that for?  I don’t know, seemed like a good idea at the time.  Why can’t elk do that?

Things change from year to year.  One year it rains to beat hell, the next the country is dry as toast.  Ah, it must be global warming, we say.  One year the elk make so much racket below the barn that it’s hard to get a full night’s sleep.  The next they are hardly to be heard.  Ah, it must be the wolves, we say.  One thing is for sure each and every year.  The elk will do what they want to do.  And what will they do next year?  Who knows?  I don’t.  I’ll wait to see.  Things don’t always turn out as one expects, but they always do turn out.


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