Time to Listen for Elk in Nevada's Spring Mountains

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Although daytime temperatures in Las Vegas aren't showing it yet, the sights and sounds of fall can now be seen and heard in the nearby Spring Mountains. One of those sounds is the melodic bugle of a mature Rocky Mountain bull elk, considered by some to be the most majestic member of the deer family.

Many newcomers and even some old-timers are surprised to learn that elk can be found in the desert, but they weren't always here. Although elk were native to Nevada prior to the 20th century, they had become extinct due mostly to overhunting. The elk in the Spring Mountains today were reintroduced here some decades ago. In the 1930's, a number of elk were transported from Yellowstone National Park to the Spring Mountains, as well as other sites across Nevada and the western U.S. Then, in 1984, NDOW supplemented the elk herd with another release. Those animals dispersed and many made their way to the area around the small mountain community of Cold Creek.

Elk are the second largest member of the deer family, with moose being the largest. Since there are no moose in Nevada, elk take the crown for largest ungulate, or hoofed animal, in the state. The males, or bulls, can weigh 600 to 1,000 pounds, with the females, or cows, weighing 450 to 600 pounds. The bulls' antlers can reach a span of five feet. All elk have a distinctive yellowish-white patch on the rump, thus garnering them the name of "wapiti," a Shawnee word for 'white rump." The bulls also have a shaggy, dark mane on their necks.

Elk are herbivores, eating mostly grasses and forbs, which are common on burned-over areas, such as the "McFarlane Burn", east of the town of Cold Creek. After a burn, an abundance of these plants sprout and provide good forage, and this is especially enhanced if the area has been seeded over. Another resource that the elk are attracted to at Cold Creek is cool, clear, spring-fed water. A small creek and a few ponds near town are common sites to spot these animals, early in the day or towards evening.

The Cold Creek area, then, is a prime viewing area for these magnificent game animals. There is also a chance you could see elk in the Willow Creek drainage, going up to Wheeler Pass, on the back side of the Spring Mountains. They can be seen at various elevations up among the canyon walls there.

Males congregate in bachelor herds for the warmer parts of the year, but in late summer they join up with cows and calves for the "rut," or the mating season. This is the time when the bulls exhibit a distinctive behavior called bugling. Bugling consists of a series of bellows and screams, which challenges other bulls and attracts the cow elk. The idea is to make the loudest, longest, and farthest-carrying sound, so as to impress the females. An elk bugle call can be heard for miles, and is especially effective if performed in an open meadow. Even if you've never experienced the sound before, you will know it when you hear it.

According to Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) game biologist Pat Cummings, "A bull elk's bugle will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you hear it."

Bugling is only part of the rutting behavior that occurs in the fall. Bulls also engage in antler battles as well as posturing, wallowing in mud or water, and scenting their antlers with their own individual smell. Trees are often victims of rutting behavior as the bulls rake them with their antlers. Rutting behavior continues for five or six weeks.

"When viewing elk in the fall, it is important not to harass them because the rut places heavy demands on them physically and they have enough factors harassing them already. It is best to keep your distance and use a good binocular or spotting scope. Also, when you are looking for the elk, be on the lookout for unlawful activity, such as poaching," Cummings said.

Even though elk numbers in the Spring Mountain range are lower than they have been in years past, due primarily to disturbance and drought, there is still a good chance you can see and hear them in the Spring Mountains, only about an hour away from the city. Bugling elk can also be heard in other parts of the state. Lincoln, Nye or White Pine counties are home to numerous elk. Bugling is most common early and late in the day, and will occur from early September into October.

"What a great experience it is for urban kids to see and hear this striking wildlife without having to visit an elk farm," said Doug Nielsen, NDOW conservation educator.

For more information on where to view these animals throughout the state, check out the "Big Game Status Report," on the NDOW website, www.ndow.org.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) protects, restores and manages fish and wildlife, and promotes fishing, hunting, and boating safety. NDOW's wildlife and habitat conservation efforts are primarily funded by sportsmen's license and conservation fees and a federal surcharge on hunting and fishing gear. Support wildlife and habitat conservation in Nevada by purchasing.