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Peak time: Reproductive activity hits full stride for elk in September.  (Photo/JIM WARD).
Peak time: Reproductive activity hits full stride for elk in September. (Photo/JIM WARD).

- Jim Ward

- For The Observer

If what many scientists say is true, Northeast Oregon may very well owe its bountiful, natural resources to a mere shift in the wind.

Mount Mazama, which is now Crater Lake, erupted thousands of years ago. The wind carried a huge plume of ash across the state and dumped several feet of this mineral-rich material over the Blue Mountains. This natural fertilizer buried sage and bleak grasslands, and transformed them into dense forests and meadows teeming with wildlife.

As a result, local communities prospered from logging, grazing and agriculture.

Northeast Oregon is also well know for its bountiful wildlife populations, especially elk, another natural and very renewable resource.

It has been said by wildlife managers across the West that the Blue Mountains likely have more elk per square mile than any other region in the nation. Hunters are very aware of this. In a typical elk hunting season, over 4,000 tons of elk venison reach Eastern Oregon freezers.

All the equipment, groceries and gas used to pursue these beasts adds around $12 million to local coffers annually.

Now even a casual elk-aholic would consider September the elk month.

For much of the year elk really don't do much other than vegetate, ruminate and eliminate. Some migrate.

Come September these meadow munchers turn into a different critter. Bull elk rub trees to scrape velvet off their shiney, white antlers turning them dark brown with pitch. They spar with other bulls, with nearby trees and even gore the ground to tune-up vital reflexes in preparation for the challenges ahead.

Hormone levels spike upward. Sleek cows gather in large groups preparing for the breeding season or rut. After nearly a year of abstinence they'll be coming into estrous soon. They become more anxious and sensitive to every scent and sound in the forest.

September also coincides with the archery elk season in Northeast Oregon. Archers begin preparing for the elk rut, too. Pre-season scouting tells the hunter where the elk are hiding.

Lots of practice with essential equipment will tune-up the bowmen's vital reflexes as well. Dedicated hunters will fine tune their skills with artificial elk calls, pour over topo maps to familiarize themselves with favorite hunting areas, and even increase their exercise regimen to improve their hiking stamina.

Gather around your typical bowmen's campfire and you'll likely hear a plethora of biological information about elk and their behavior, along with the usual drivvel about the big one that got away.

An often-heard rendering is the timing of the elk rut. Many will suggest that the weather determines when cow elk come into heat and when bulls begin bugling. The theory is that hot, dry weather will postpone the rut until cooler weather comes.

Not so.

With that line of thinking an extra dry fall could push the elk breeding season back several weeks, and with a set gestation period of about 250 days, cows would give birth to calves much later in the spring, forcing their vulnerable young to cope with a fast-approaching winter.

Ma Nature has a better idea.

Much research has been conducted to understand the life cycle of elk. The book, "Elk of North America," written by elk experts Jack Ward Thomas and Dale Toweill, contains a vast compilation of studies on elk.

Studies suggest that much of an elk's biological patterns are governed more by the amount of light they are subject to throughout the year. Decreasing daylight in the fall triggers the pineal gland through the eye to increase hormone levels promoting changes in behavior.

One such study actually involved putting elk in enclosed buildings with artificial light regulated by timers. Animals were subject to a condensed lighting schedule and forced into more than the usual once-a-year rut. Females came into estrous whenever the light simulated the fall pattern, and males grew and shed antlers more often.

Through intense study with radio-collared animals and state-of-the-art tracking systems, research conducted at our own Starkey Experimental Forest has revealed some very interesting facts about elk behavior.

One study set up a situation where only yearling bull elk were available to breed with about 350 cows. In subsequent years, conception data was gathered as those same bulls grew older.

The study revealed that as yearlings the bulls took 71 days to finally impregnate all the fertile cows, whereas, when they were five years old it only took 41 days.

Of the cows that gave birth the next spring, 90 percent were bred by Sept. 28 when 5-year-old bulls were present in the herd, but it took nearly a month longer, to Oct. 21, for the yearling bulls to do the job.

The peak conception date with 5-year-old bulls was Sept. 14, and Sept. 28 for the yearling bulls. According to Bruce Johnson, biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Starkey Project leader at the time, the Starkey bull elk study merely confirmed what most biologists already knew.

Shortly after the bull studies, the state of Oregon began a more concerted effort to limit the number of mature bulls that were harvested by hunters.

Johnson pointed out that "much of this effort was already underway as the state's low bull ratios were becoming socially unacceptable among those concerned about the animals' well-being."

Feedback from hunters suggested that many were a bit disturbed at the spike-only seasons at first, but after they started seeing more mature bulls in the herds they began to accept the plan.

So what do pineal glands, estrous cycles and synchronous calving periods have to do with hunters?

In essence, hunters are predators. The most successful predators, whether they move with four legs or two, are those that learn the individual peculiarities of the prey they hunt to their benefit.

One on one, elk have a distinct advantage over the hunter. They run faster, have much better senses and know the terrain better. Over time, human hunters have used their brain-power to develop tools to close that gap. They have more effective weapons, better quality garments to keep them comfortable in the elements and other specialized tools to improve the odds of coming home with a venison dinner.

All the gadgets in the world won't guarantee success, however. The most successful hunters are those who spend a good deal of time in the field and at the practice range. Year-round observation of the animals the hunter intends to pursue can help.

Learn sound woodsmanship. Sprinkle in a little luck and come next September you may find yourself in a rut.

Jim Ward lives in La Grande, and has hunted and photographed elk for more than 40 years.

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