Memorial Day Hotdogs, Marshmallows and Elk

On Memorial Day, we started a tradition of getting away from the noise of the neighborhood and driving to a quiet place on public land (no off road vehicles, generators, jet skis or radios) to roast a few weenies and marshmallows over a camp fire. Glad to see (and hear) my neighbors were enjoying themselves, but the noise was too much for us to enjoy our backyard. Like all holidays and Saturdays during the warm months, there were too many lawn mowers, weed eaters and leaf blowers running at the same time. Seems like someone is either blasting my least favorite music or revving a two-stroke, then they have to shout at each other just to talk. City folk have the inside/outside voice thing reversed. Believe me, I work hard at being fascinated instead of frustrated, but we don’t need much of an excuse to get out of town.

Scouting a Wildlife Management Area

There was still too much snow to spread out and find an uncrowded place on the National Forest, so we drove to a State Wildlife Management Area (WMA) about an hour from the house. Mixed pj and sage elk and mule deer habitat The area is 42,000 acres of PJ (pinyon-juniper) and sagebrush at between 6,600 – 7,200 feet elevation. Several years ago, the area was treated by chaining to remove the PJ from the lower flat areas to increase the shrub component for the benefit of mule deer, elk and sage grouse.

We hoped to find an antler or two and work up an appetite at the same time, but we were mainly out to do a little scouting. This is an area I have driven by many times, but never hiked. We drove about two miles up a dusty road until we found an interesting rock formation and a place to build a fire. We strapped on our binos and walked across a 500 yard wide sage flat to a low PJ covered ridge.

old juniper tree

Notice my hat on the tree trunk for scale.

I was immediately surprised at the size of some of  the Junipers and Pinyon Pines, which may be 500-1,000 years old.

I was also surprised at the amount of Birch-leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) and serviceberry (Amelanchier) that was growing under the PJ.

The elk sign was so thick in places, it was impossible not to step on groups of pellets. There was also some mule deer sign, so this place was definitely used during the Winter, but more evidence that elk are increasing in areas that were primarily used by mule deer.

We found scavenged carcasses and scattered bones of several elk and deer and a cow elk that had a hole in her shoulder and was missing all four legs, which we assumed had been harvested.

Other Wildlife

Late May is prime time for the small bird breeding season, so we were listening to songs to learn which of the migrants had returned to set up breeding territories. Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows were singing in the sage and Juniper Titmouse, Mountain Chickadees and Western Wood Pewees were singing in the PJ. Don’t usually find pewees in these dry PJ areas, they are more common in riparian areas. There were the usual Mountain Bluebirds, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Clark’s Nutcrackers, bush-tits, flickers and ravens in the area.

As for small mammals, we jumped a cottontail rabbit (Nuttall’s – Sylvilagus nuttallii) at the edge of the PJ and  saw several black-tailed jackrabbits along the road in the sage. We also saw several least chipmunks along the ridge.

Elk are Still Here

Very little of the elk sign was fresh, so we assumed most of the elk had moved off to higher elevations. I know of similar areas about the same elevation that hold elk year round, but we were not expecting to find any. Out of habit and just in case, we walked into the wind as we searched the ridge. I was walking with my nose to the ground when Sonia suddenly said “Stop!” as forcefully as was prudent. Directly in front of us at about 60 yards, partially obscured by a mahogany shrub, was a young bull elk. They young bull had his head down and was stripping leaves from the mahogany. We froze right there in the open and watched him.

When his head came up, he immediately put radar lock on us, but we stood motionless, hiding our faces by looking through our binoculars. And as they almost always do if they don’t smell you, he put his head down and continued eating. The bull had the start of the smallest four velvet bumps I think I have ever seen on an elk. He was young, but he was growing more than just spikes. He was probably just two years old, but I have seen 4×4 elk still holding last year’s antlers in May and I found a very small 5 point antlers before, so he could be three years old.

We watched him as he fed for several minutes and when he moved up to the next bush, we backed off the next time his head went down. I suspected he had a buddy or two with him, so we slipped back far enough that we had cover and went up to the ridge and slipped back along the ridge to about the place we last saw the young bull. I was looking intently down the hill for the little bull, when Sonia gave me the “Stop! signal again. She had seen movement straight in front of us.

Nice Antlers

At first, I didn’t see anything. She motioned for me to give the camera to her, then she took a few more steps up the hill then suddenly stopped. At the same time, I saw a pretty nice set of antlers sticking up above the horizon at about 30 yards. This was a mature bull, with main beams and brow tines as long as his head. The G2s were about half that length, and the G3s were just starting to split off the main beams, much like the May 13 pictures in the video below, except without the split brow tines.

I slowly set down on a rock ledge so I could see the bull’s antlers and ears, but not his eyes when his head came up. I am sure he saw my hat, but not my eyes. This elk was also stripping the leaves off a mahogany bush. I am amazed the bull had not seen Sonia, who was standing about three steps closer to the elk than me. She knows to freeze and to hide her face when caught out in the open and appears to be hiding behind the little video camera held up to her face. The wind is still steady into our faces, so he hadn’t smelled us, and the sound of the wind in the trees masked any noise we might have made, but his spider senses were starting to tingle.

He stopped feeding for several minutes. His ears were intently pointed in our direction, then he would turn his head and search for sound in different directions. Then what was probably the same young bull we saw earlier walked behind him and moved up the hill. The old bull went back to eating.

The entire time, I had an amazing view of the bull’s antlers and assumed Sonia had an even better view and was getting it all on video. She occasionally slowly shifted right or left trying to get a better view and the old bull stopped several times to listen and sniff the air. I knew the exact second he heard her by watching his ears. He still didn’t know what we were, but he didn’t like it. He slowly walked up the hill to where the young bull had gone and we could see them both walked off up the ridge through the trees.

Murphy’s Law

That is when I learned she never saw the old bull again until he walked off. As always, Murphy did his thing, she was filming the brush where she last saw the little bull and I sat for 5 or 6 minutes with a perfect view of the old bull’s antlers and no camera. That’s OK, we have the memories and a story to tell.

We waited a few minutes and followed them. We tracked them for about 500 yards along the ridge until they dropped down into a canyon. They were never seriously spooked, because then never ran. I thought it was interesting that every time I would have chosen to walk around a bush or low branch, they went straight through or under. It never ceases to amaze me at the ease these big animals move through cover. We temporarily lost the trail several times, but found them again because of the shedding hair left behind when they squeezed between shrubs.

The tracks of the two elk were the only fresh tracks on that ridge since last rain about a week ago. The area holds hundreds of elk during the Winter, but probably only a dozen bulls this time of year. To see elk at 30 yards on a day we expected not to see anything makes up for those few days when we see nothing. I have no idea of how many people hunt this area, but this might be a place I could hunt once in a while. I will definitely be back. I can this WMA is a valuable resource for all wildlife and we are fortunate that years ago, someone had the foresight to protect it from development.

We went back to our search for antlers, but the only antlers we found that day were growing on top of  the two bull’s heads. interesting rock formation at our  cook site

We were starving by the time we got back to the truck and quickly built a fire to roast our hotdogs. Food never tastes better than when eating outside.  I’ll should thank my neighbors, but can’t because I would have to tell them why. If they weren’t so noisy, we might have been tempted to be lazy and cook weenies on the grill in the backyard. Instead we scouted a new area, saw elk and other wildlife and had the best hotdog we’ve had since last year.

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