The wind suggests winter. And up in the high country, it certainly is. But down here, snows fall and melt still, leaving you straddling two seasons. The golden hues of aspens and narrow leafed cottonwood trees are gone. Only a few leaves now litter the stream banks and dusty roads, adding splashes of colour like paint flung from a brush. This is the season of gold. Golden leaves. Dry golden grasses. Golden hours that seem to linger on forever, creating alternating patterns of highlight and shadow as the light spills across ridge tops and hills.
The deafening silence of this season is broken only by the out of season bugles of elk reverberating through the hills and mountains. The peak of the rut has passed for these guys and the bugles have become less frequent, but a few big bulls still wrangle their harems up and down the amber coloured steppes of the mountains – drunk on testosterone, singing both love songs and battle calls as they try to woo distant females and dare any would be challengers within ear shot. Though there are few responses. Bighorn sheep, those monarchs of the Rockies, are beginning to filter out of the high mountains and onto their winter grounds where they prepare for their epic battles in the weeks to come. Pronghorn are still red up and chasing girls around at neck-breaking speeds of 60mph, and mule deer brandish their crown of antlers and massively swollen necks showing off their genetic pedigree to the ladies.
In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem the so-called rut spans a period of five full months. That is roughly 150 days of survival of the fittest. Challenges to the death. Only the strongest, smartest, and finely tuned genes continue on into the future. This is a landscape graced by a menagerie of various species which all engage in annual battle as they strive for the right to breed.
The spell of hormones
The bison are the first to come under the spell of hormones as the evenings cool and daylight shortens. Come August the big bulls weighing in at some 2,500 pounds come swaggering back into the herds all full of piss and vinegar. These brutes are succeeded by both moose and elk whose rutting activity peaks with the autumn equinox, luring in the vast majority of wildlife photographers who travel here each year.
Next in line are the pronghorn, the second fastest mammal on Earth, whose rut spills over into October and finally trickles down come November. By mid-October, the necks of mule deer begin swelling up and bachelor groups can be seen sparring with each other as they establish pecking orders before the real fighting begins. But it’s another month before their activity really gets hot and heavy.
Last, but far from least, are the bighorn sheep. The rifle like report of heads smashing into each other begins to echo through the canyons come the end of November and carries on until late December as they finish out their battle royal in the frozen landscape of winter. at’s five full months of hoofed mammals strutting their stuff in peak physical condition, and all spoiling for a fight.
Sex aside, this is also a time for winter preparations. Th season of snow can be the stuff of legend around these parts with temperatures dipping down to minus 40° – both Celsius and Fahrenheit. Bears are in hyperphagia, turning into 24/7 eating machines as they race time and snow to pack on as many calories as they can before retiring to denning sites for hibernation. Black bears have disappeared; most already cozied up for the winter. Grizzlies continue to prowl the riverbanks and meadows searching for elk wounded during the rut. And animals all over this ecosystem are beginning to descend to lower elevations en masse, before they find themselves trapped up high by the snow and without food.
Survival in the months to come depends upon how much fat that can be laid down these next few weeks. As for myself, I work to chip away at the four cords of wood I will need to stay warm this winter – hands calloused and shoulders aching from swinging an axe down onto the chopping block each day in between photographing and the ever neglected office work that follows.
Taking a break from splitting firewood, I find myself beneath a towering sentry known as Electric Peak – named for the electrical discharges experienced from both hands and hair by the Hayden Expedition during a lightning storm while on its summit. I’m tucked behind my lens following a large pronghorn buck along the golden tinted hills outside of Gardiner, Montana.
With seven girls to hang on to, this guy has his work cut out for him. The background is an illuminated hillside broken by diagonal patterns of shadows and tree-lined gullies. I’m low so as to compose him on a slight rise, giving him the appearance of standing on a ridgeline in front of me and allowing his presence to tower above my position. This gives him a regal demeanour. In this sort of supine position, I’m not exactly behaving like a normal tourist up here. People don’t lay down in the grass and cacti of these hills. They drive by in vehicles, roll their windows down, and stick an iPad out. Pronghorn rarely bother to even lift their heads. But me, I’m something completely different. The buck sizes me up. All attention is temporarily brought to bear on me. Lifting his hoof into the air, he stomps the ground hoping to elicit a response from me. Eleven frames per second rolls off my camera. Am I predator? Or am I just another benign ape cloaked in expensive outdoor gear?