Elk mix it up at secret ‘Fight Club’ in Montana meadow

HAMILTON, Mont. — Craig Jourdonnais was amazed when he stumbled upon what might be a “Fight Club” for young bull elk.

He was hiking in western Montana – he politely declined to be more specific – when he came to an area where a number of trails intersected.

“I first thought they were hunters’ trails, but there wasn’t any blazing to indicate that they were man-made,” said Jourdonnais, a biologist and big game researcher for the Bitterroot’s MPG Ranch. “I got to looking and saw a lot of elk sign, so I decided to put up a camera. It was kind of dumb luck.”

The former videographer with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been rewarded with more than 200 short clips of the bulls gently sparring with one another in the last two years. He calls it the “Cervidae Octagon” – Cervidae being the scientific name for the deer family.

“It’s like a playground, like they’re playing and are light-hearted, if elk can be light-hearted,” Jourdonnais said. “They’re gingerly sparring and never actually contact each other, especially early in the spring when their antlers are in velvet. As the summer progresses and the antlers are closer to fully developed, they’re a little more aggressive.

“It’s like a workout, a way for them to stay in shape and exercise with each other. In a couple clips they have their tongues hanging out, like they’re tired from working out.”

In the 1999 Brad Pitt movie “Fight Club,” young men hold bare-knuckle fighting matches, with the rule being “You don’t talk about fight club.”

Sparring among young bulls is common as they prepare for the rut; what is unusual in this case is that the bulls keep returning to this particular location.

While the sparring typically involves only a couple of bulls, Jourdonnais said he’s identified up to 15 distinct elk who have visited the Cervidae Octagon. They’re usually there every morning between 5:30 and 7:30.

“They seem to really concentrate in this flat area and play, then leave,” he said. “We’ve all watched elk spar when their antlers are hard during the rut, but this obviously is an activity that’s pretty important to them.”

He added that the area where they’re sparring doesn’t have any apparent elk wallows, watering holes or other reasons to draw the elk to this location.

University of Montana Professor Joshua Millspaugh, who is the Boone & Crockett chair and knows Jourdonnais, called it “interesting behavior” that he hasn’t heard of before.

“Especially that they’re using the same area,” Millspaugh said. “It certainly sounds like a number of those young bulls are testing one another prior to the rut. As bulls start to form young bachelor groups, it doesn’t surprise me to see some of that activity.

“But it is interesting, especially if he’s unable to identify some specific reason they’re coming to that location.”

Like the secretive Fight Club, Jourdonnais said with a laugh that the elk apparently don’t want to be watched.

“They kept trying to tear the camera off the tree. I had to wire it to keep it in a stable position,” he said. “The first time they saw it, you can hear them grabbing the straps and ripping them, pulling on it. They got the camera opened one time, and chewed through the audio wire. A lot of times they get so close that that all you can see is an eyeball.”

Millspaugh also laughed when he heard about the camera mauling, noting that elk are quite curious.

“When you set out cameras like that, very frequently elk will pay attention to them – they’re rather notorious for that,” Millspaugh said.

Jourdonnais notes that the elk leave the area during hunting season, only to return the next year. He’s vowed to keep the location a secret, adding that it’s not in an area where he hunts and the elk seem to leave in the fall, only to return in the spring.

Why here? Jourdonnais hopes to learn more as part of the MPG Ranch’s big game research effort.

“It’s part of the mystery to me,” he said. “If you walked through it like any other place, it wouldn’t stand out. But it seems to be such a magnet for them.”

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