North for Elk

Each year, I travel north in search of elk. Given that I live part of the year in Montana, home to some 50,000 elk, this may seem odd. With Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park right in my backyard, most people are confused to hear that I travel to Canada for my elk photography. The reason for this is two fold.

First, the elk are bigger in Canada. That is basic biology and the principle is known as Bergman’s rule. This theory basically states that specimens of a particular species are larger across the northern ranges of their population compared to the southern ranges. This has everything to do with cold weather and an animals surface to volume ratio. The larger an animal, the greater volume of that animal. Volume relates to an animals ability to generate and retain heat. The skin (surface area) is where heat is lost. In other words, a bigger animal has less surface area to lose heat through compared to their volume and ability to generate heat. Where temperatures are warmer, bigger bodies can be a major hinderance as shedding heat becomes a priority. This is why deer, for instance, are small and skinny in Florida but big and fat in Saskatchewan. The same holds true for elk. The farther north you go, the bigger the elk.  

The second reason I travel to Canada for the elk rut is because of global climate change. Come the start of Autumn, the bell curve peak of the elk rut, temperatures are not what the used to be in the Yellowstone ecosystem. September used to be when snow first began to fly and temperatures were topping out in the upper 40s and low 50s. Now, it is often 75 – 80 degrees during the day time. This is too warm for elk. We can find good behavior into the upper 50s, but beyond that, these animals simply disappear into the forest to stay cool and limit their rutting behavior to the night when temperatures drop below their threshold.  

To test this second part, last year, I laid down some 1500 miles of travel in search of elk across the Rocky Mountains. Starting in Colorado, I worked my way north until I found good activity. Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Missouri Breaks, Waterton Lakes, Banff, and then finally Jasper National Park. It was not until I reached Jasper, about halfway up Alberta at the northern limit to the Rocky Mountain Elk’s native range, did I find appropriate temperatures and activity worth photographing. 

So, for these two reasons, I have also stopped offering Fall workshops in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and have moved my autumn operations to Alberta, Canada. 

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