They had been avoiding us for the past two years. When glimpsed at all, it was from far away and they were usually trotting quickly over the hill. Alert as always, they saw me before I saw them. This winter though, they have crossed our property almost daily.
It’s estimated that there are about 140,000 elk in Montana. When we moved here, I figured I’d be tripping over them. Not so. For the first two years they were allusive and, on the rare occasions we did catch a glimpse, it was of their white backsides fading into the distance. Elk were over hunted and wiped out back east and I was really hoping to see them here. Two years of looking and I was getting discouraged. Luckily, the local elk herd found our neighbor’s hay this year. Not so lucky for our neighbor.
To give you a quick idea of how large these animals are. A good size whitetail deer will weigh 250 pounds. An elk is 800 pounds. Whitetails are about 3.5 feet at the shoulder, elk can be over 5 feet. These are big animals, and, judging from my neighbor's hay pile, they have big appetites.
Our herd, I’ve become possessive, has about thirty elk. They are mostly females, but there are at least three young bulls in the mix. They stalk down from the mountain early in the morning while it’s still dark to cash in on the free meal. As the sky lightens, they figure they best get out of Dodge and work their way back up the mountain. Sometimes they travel through the fir trees in a long single line and sometimes in small groups. They stalk by our house and work their way up the hill. If you go out early and stand quietly, you can hear them as they crunch through the ice crust on the snow. If the wind is right, you can smell them, a warm, musky odor. It’s what Lewis and Clark must have smelled. It’s what native American hunters longed to smell. It smells wild.
They tend to eat in the early morning and then again in the evening. One day, the heard was resting on a hill across the valley. The Tamarack trees lose their needles in the fall leaving much of the far hill exposed. It’s easy to see rocks and downed trees against the snow even from a half mile away. One day, the rocks were moving. Looking harder, you could see the rocks had heads and a couple of those heads had antlers. All thirty of them were resting on the hillside. They were curled up in the snow just hanging.
Most times they go up the mountain and disappear. There’s nothing but forest behind our house. Miles of it. One day I decided I wanted to see where they went during the day. I learned something new about the Wapiti (elk). They don’t mind long walks through deep snow going mostly up hill. After about a mile of following their tracks through knee deep snow I decided it was time for coffee and Oreos. I went home. I think the dog was glad I turned around, he looked tired too.
Elk go high in the summer and come down to where we live, where snow isn’t as deep and the pickings are easier, in the winter. Unlike the local deer, this herd stays together, all thirty of them. Maybe for company, probably for protection. It’s rare to see one alone. Man isn’t the only predator chasing them.
We’ve been blessed to share the winter with them. As spring gets closer, we’ll wake up one morning and they won’t be there. The grass up high will be accessible and they’ll go higher and deeper into the mountains leaving us intruders behind. The neighbor will be happy, but I’ll miss them.