In 2010 I visited for a wedding and late one afternoon my cousin took me for a ride up into the hills to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. In addition to a pair of Sandhill cranes, we saw 275 deer. I am not stretching the truth - there were three of us in the car and we counted very carefully. In fact, we surely must have missed some. There were a few small groups of 15 or so, most of them consisted of groups of 2-5 grazing peacefully. I very badly wanted to see some elk - or even 'an' elk, but the closest we came was a man on a bicycle that had us fooled for a few minutes. (you are more apt to see an elk than a man on a bicycle in the Montana mountains) It was an amazing experience, this was not 'managed' wildlife - this was the real thing.
Last August year I visited again and requested that we find time for what is referred to as The Safari. My cousin and his wife take this drive fairly often, with varying routes, depending on the amount of time they want to spend and where they want to end up. They always count the cranes, and the deer, and the elk. Their all time record is something over a thousand total.
We set off in the afternoon a little early for the deer to be down grazing, but we had planned a dinner out so it was in fact a little late when we started spotting deer. Just as previously, the deer were plentiful and the total grew rapidly. Pretty soon we were well over 200 (counting several Sandhill Cranes) and I was wearing a permanent grin. I was quite pleased, but still holding out hope for a couple of elk.
And then it happened. We came around a long slow curve in the road and we saw elk - lots of elk, lots and lots of elk - spread across four or five hills. It was breath-taking to see this enormous herd moving slowly across the hills almost like a cloud shadow. As soon as we took in the vision, the sound hit us. This herd was almost equal parts cows & calves, and as they traveled they kept in constant communication. It was surprisingly loud and unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was a sound experience that will stay with me forever.
|Just a fraction of the herd|
There were a couple of other trucks stopped along the road, binoculars out. And we spoke softly among ourselves, spooking the elk only slightly. I wanted to take pictures, but more than that I just wanted to stand and watch and listen. So I did, openmouthed and a bit verklempt. There was no way we could possibly count this herd, it was the largest my cousin had ever seen, but we estimated upwards of 300. I couldn't even begin to get them all in my camera viewfinder. Eventually, an approaching car at one end spooked the herd enough that it turned on itself. My cousin, educated in animal behavior, decided we needed to move on as the signs of stress were becoming evident among the cows with calves.
We counted at least another 100 deer on the way home - and it would have been more but we ran out of light. They are hard enough to spot in daylight, but they fade away entirely as dusk deepens.
Speculation was that extensive forest fires in the mountains had driven the elk down as one large group. I choose to believe it was just time for me to see some elk - lots and lots of elk!