The Elk Rut is Underway: How Do You Stop People From Being That ‘Idiot Tourist?’

An elk grazes in Rocky Mountain National Park.(Photo courtesy Pixabay)

Allison Sylte | Colorado State University

Every year, multiple videos go viral of “idiot” tourists forgetting that wildlife is indeed wild when they watch the elk rut in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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And the next year, it invariably happens again.

“Right now, I’m seeing plenty of videos from Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, basically showing the elk rut – and a lot of times, the images usually involve your typical idiot tourist getting too close to an elk and the videographer trying to capture something terrible happening,” said Katie Abrams, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University. “I think people see these videos and say, ‘I would never be that tourist.’ But when they actually find themselves in that space with those creatures and those landscapes, they end up getting too close and becoming ‘that tourist’ anyway.”

The question is: How do you effectively communicate the right thing to do? Abrams is working on finding an answer. She’s worked on projects in national parks across the country aimed at creating successful social-marketing approaches to limit human-wildlife interactions.

With the Estes Park elk rut now underway and expected to last into mid-October, SOURCE caught up with Abrams and Joel Berger – CSU’s Barbara Cox Anthony University Chair of Wildlife Conversation – to discuss bugling season, how to be a good tourist and how scientists can better communicate the importance of keeping a safe distance from wild animals.

What is the elk rut? 

In some ways, watching the elk rut in Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t that different from what can be observed when certain members of the human world go out on a Friday night.

“Male elk (called bulls) do everything they can to monopolize and gain access to females,” Berger said. “Think of a bar scene in which some loud and perhaps even rowdy ‘dudes’ do everything they can to get the attention of females and take one (or more) home. That is what the elk rut is about.”

A key component is bugling, which is when elk vocalize with high-pitched roars. Berger explained that  this isn’t done just to attract females but also to potentially dissuade other males.

“However, by and large the antlers of males are used to dominate other males,” Berger said. “Fights are rare but spectacular when they occur.”

Overall, this scene brings tens to hundreds of elk into parts of Rocky Mountain National Park – and the spectacle is known to draw even larger crowds of humans, which is where the trouble could start.

How do you communicate that it’s not worth getting hurt over a good selfie? 

Berger said that elk tend to congregate where they feel safe and have easy access to food – which is why they don’t have qualms about getting close to human populations in tourist communities like Estes Park year-round. However, during mating season, these animals are concerned about much more than food.

“The elk are so focused on mating that it can be really dangerous for people,” Abrams said.

That’s why tourists are encouraged to stay at least 25 yards away from elk at all times as well as to avoid flash photography or any other activity that might disturb the animals. Berger said people should avoid getting in between male and female elk – and especially to stay away from the former during rutting season.

However, Abrams said her research has shown that simply telling people what isn’t allowed isn’t the most effective form of communication.

“What we’ve learned is that if you’re going to tell people what not to do, tell them what to do as well,” Abrams said, “because people are going to break the rules if you don’t give them an alternative path forward to achieving their goals.”

She said science communicators need to acknowledge the desires people have to take great photos and see nature in action, and that during events like the elk rut, it’s more important than ever to share how tourists can do these things safely.

“We need to teach people to follow the rules so they don’t get hurt and so that the wildlife are not disturbed,” Abrams said. “But, you also have to show how it’s in their benefit to do so.”

Show others how to be good Coloradans  

The phrase “if you see something, say something” might be a cliche … but it’s been repeated a lot for a reason.

“In the work I’ve led in promoting positive interactions with wildlife and beyond, we’ve seen it’s really important for people to speak up when they know better than the other tourists around them,” Abrams said. “So if you see other people getting too close, harassing, calling out to the elk – things like that – you could really make a difference and save some really major harm to somebody if you speak up.”

“… You always think or hope ‘it’s not my role to do that,’ but you can actually be a really powerful voice.”

Don’t forget how lucky you are to be this close to nature 

While Rocky Mountain National Park might basically be in Fort Collins’ backyard, Berger and Abrams said it’s important not to forget how rare it is to see what we might take for granted in the fall.

“The elk rut is spectacular and only a few places in the world offer the quality opportunities that we have in and around Estes Park,” Berger said.

Abrams added: “It’s incredibly understandable why people want to visit places like Colorado where there are immense opportunities to see wildlife and play in nature. I think it’s important to remember that you can have a great experience and still get excellent photos while being a good steward to these places we love so much.”