Sunday, September 18, 2011

Naming and IDing Bull Elk, Embracing the Natural

Boxley Beast --  Ear, Low Key,  Great Rack 
People often ask me how I can tell one bull elk from another. They do look more alike than different to the untrained eye. The standard "rap" on a mature elk is that they are all 6x6's and look alike.  To one who looks at a lot of elk, individual differences jump out, even across multiple years with slightly different antlers. Experts know where to look and what to look at. Most bulls have a few distinct traits that taken together make them easy to ID.

Here is my short list of what I look at:

  • Fighting Scars -- Many herd bulls have scars around their shoulders and sides from past fights. 
  • Body Shape -- Bulls are muscular, but some are real thick. Younger bulls are slim by comparison. Really big herd bulls have bellies. 
  • Antler Points -- Obviously point counts differ, usually elk bulls pick up points with age. 
  • Antler Span -- The distance between the right and left antlers in the middle, and at the tips. 
  • Palmate Antlers -- Old bulls have antlers that get wide and look moose-like with points along the "palms". Curly was an example of this trait. 
  • Antler Sweep & Curve -- Some antlers curve down, some are straight looking like ladders. With some, the tips curve together, and others are straight. 
  • Point Height -- Some bulls have short points, and some long. Some bulls will have a long point on only one side.
  • Combinations of long and short tines on the same rack. This can vary a lot from bull to bull. 
  • Drop Tines -- A handful of bulls have drop tines. Last year it was the Boxley Stud and Bubba Stud that had drop tines. Curly had drop eye guards. 
  • Eye Guards -- Some bulls have long eye guards, some short, some wide, some narrow, some with drop tips.
  • Radio Collars -- Some bulls look similar, but one will have a collar, and another will not. Bubba Stud had a collar, the Boxley Stud does not. 
  • Other Injuries -- The Boxley Beast's left ear tip flops down for example. Cotton Eye Jack had a bad eye.  
  • Bubba Stud -- Radio Collar, Drop Tine, Fierce Fighter 
  • Temperament -- Two examples come to mind. The Boxley Beast is a pretty low-keyed bull in contrast to the Bubba Stud that just rages during the rut. Elk do have personalities. 
Taken together, these many traits allow one to quickly close in on IDing a bull elk. Sometimes you have to look  more closely at an image from a shoot, but often you can ID the animal quickly. Some traits are relatively rare like drop tines, or the injured left ear of the Boxley Beast.

Curly -- Palmate Antlers &
Drop-tine Eye Guards
I missed seeing Curley last year, perhaps the oldest elk in the valley in recent years. I wonder if he simply died, or perhaps moved to a different area. I look for him still with his distinct palmate antlers and drop tine eye guards. I will probably never know what has happened to him, but that is a part of what makes elk viewing fascinating for me.

Naming and IDing the bull elk in Boxley Valley connects me with their lives and how they move through the seasons and across years. I observe the changing of the guard like this year when Maverick, an early rutting bull, lost out to the Boxley Beast in an early struggle for dominance. I would not see this with nameless animals, every one looking alike. IDing them allows me to track them, naming them helps me both explain them to others. These names seem to resonate with elk fans I meet in the valley who ask me about this bull or that. They seem to be connecting with the "elk experience" in a new way, perhaps seeing the stories for the first time. That is my hope.

One of the things I like most about doing this blog and my huge website is that it is my hope that they lead readers to a deeper love of nature. John Muir said it best in his Wilderness Essays, "“I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.”  I am not a John Muir, but I do believe that moving closer to nature informs life, and if more of us will do so, we will not only be ecologically responsible, we will  improve the human prospect. 

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