The Elk Rut in Review

By Casey Ripple
Montana, 2011, DIY, Public Land

Casey Ripple - The Elk Rut in ReviewJuly/August 2012 EBJ (Issue 72) - Another year of chasing those majestic creatures has gone by, and our blisters and egos have started to heal. In talking to and hearing from a lot of different people, there seemed to be a common theme, not only here in Montana, but from all over elk country that "it just seemed to be an off year.” At the same time, others had good success even with difficult conditions and big lulls in activity. Now would be a good time to get out our hunting journals and look back and see if we can piece together some of what caused what we weren’t seeing and more importantly hearing. By looking back on years like this, hopefully we can learn how to better predict how the conditions will affect the elk and what adjustments we need to make to be successful. Also, looking at how much of it was actually quite predictable; we could have made some adjustments going into the season. This year was truly a "perfect storm” when it comes to creating a difficult season for a lot of elk hunters. Here are a few oftenoverlooked elements that we should all try to pay attention to in the future.

One of the most common things I hear from elk hunters is "the rut is late this year,” often based on a hotter than normal September. Or "I think they went in early” based on a lack of rut activity at the normal peak period. The "rut” or breeding period is actually very predictable and quite constant. The elk breeding cycle is photoperiodic, or caused by light. More precisely, it is an exact ratio between daylight and dark that occurs each fall. This ratio causes hormones to flow in cows that result in an estrous cycle. The "peak” of the elk rut or cycle will be within five to 10 days of Sept. 22nd or 23rd, the first day of fall. Now that we’ve taken some of the mystery away from that part of the equation, we can look at some of the things that do vary greatly from one year to the next.

Probably not very many of us are thinking about the water temperature in the Pacific Ocean when we are getting ready for an elk hunt. But believe it or not, it does have a great impact on our weather here in the West. Weather plays a huge role in elk distribution in their habitat, which has a huge impact on elk behavior, especially during the rut. Starting in June of 2010, we went into a weather pattern known as "La Nina.” Simply put, this is a result of the water temperature cooling in the Pacific Ocean. The result is a much cooler and wetter winter and spring weather pattern in the northwest section of the country. This also creates much more north to south movement in air masses causing more radical ups and downs in temperatures.

Another thing to pay close attention to in years to come is "El Nino.” This is a more common and well-known condition that is caused by and results in essentially the exact opposite of La Nina. Higher water temperature in the Pacific results in hotter, dryer weather in the northwest and has basically the opposite effect on elk habitat and distribution. With the La Nina of 2010, we had record snowfalls and a long, drawn out, cold and wet spring with flooding. Later in the summer, this resulted in massive amounts of feed throughout elk habitat and some of it where there might normally be almost none. This resulted in the elk using parts of their range that they would normally ignore. This spread the elk more evenly and thinly across their range. It also took elk from areas we would normally find them in great numbers and put them into several other areas in smaller groups.

Then to make things even more difficult, we started to come out of the La Nina pattern at the worst possible time. Right around the July and August time frame, we began to go back into an "Enso,” or neutral weather pattern, which allowed for some record heat here in Montana in the month of September. Hot weather is one of the largest limiting factors in daytime animal activity.

Casey Ripple - The Elk Rut in Review

For a full account of Casey's adventure, go to page 50 in the July/August 2012 issue of Eastmans' Bowhunting Journal.