When I think of a Friday night, I picture tailgates, barbecues and local sports events. Out here, on the Charles M. Russell Refuge near Malta, Montana, Friday night entertainment comes with a herd of elk. Dozens of trucks swarmed the reserve, each supplied with a coolers, bug spray, and a couple of lawn chairs. Families, couples, elders, and kids all gathered to come and witness these large, enchanting animals during their mating season, known as the rut. Beer and binoculars were passed around and each person was cheering for a different male elk to win over the highest numbers of female. Pure American spirit was the vibe on the prairie, and for a short second I felt back at home at one of the college football games.
As I gazed into the field, stunned at the amount of elk (since I had never seen one before), I witnessed the struggle that all male species face; winning over the females’ attention. The male elk strut their overly large antlers, bugling as loud as they can to prove their strength and size. They urinate on themselves and roll in the mud, a term called wallowing, because apparently to female elk this is very attractive. Each male had his own harem, or herd of women, and some had many more than others. It was a fight to keep your ladies and stop the other males from stealing them. This is where the entertainment comes from – the fights, the struggle, and the dominant male. The crowds roar for the battles, cheers for specific elk, and anxiously wait to see how this wild act of nature will play out. I even found myself cheering for the one male elk that had a smaller harem than the rest, because of course; I’m always rooting for the underdog.
However, through all of this commotion, it made me question why the elk chose this spot and how they had become so accustomed to humans? Through talking with Randy Matchett, a biologist on the refuge since the 70s, we learned more about the rut and why the elk were here. He informed us that the elk had chosen this specific location because of the human history behind it. About twenty years ago, this land that the elk were currently mating on was used for the management office of the CMR. This also meant that the public was prohibited from hunting on it. Elk, being the clever animals that they are, realized that they wouldn’t be harassed or in danger here. We gave them this safe place to mate and find food, and now, in return, they give many local people their Friday night entertainment.
Despite the seemingly amicable situation that the elk and humans interacted in, there are many social and ecological issues surrounding elk management. One issue is block management, giving incentives to private landowners to open up their land for the elk-hunting season. Elk, stated earlier, know where their safe areas are, the places in which they cannot be hunted. Many elk herds use the private land to hide out during the hunting season, making it harder for hunting-based population management. This block management policy would allow the state to better control the number of elk during each season and keep the populations intact. It is just another “private versus public land” issue that the state of Montana faces.
Yet, this whole scene was a new experience for me; a strange, entertaining, unique experience that I had never witnessed before. And, of course, being the tourist and global studies major that I am, I was snapping photos and studying the people and culture more than I was getting into “the game of the elk”. The whole atmosphere intrigued me. Being a girl from the East, I would never see such a sight. Coming from football games and house parties to diesel trucks, elks and lots of bug spray was a huge change. But it was an event that was unlike any that I’ve ever been a part of and I can totally appreciate why so many Montanans come and spend their nights viewing this remarkable wildlife.