Story submitted by Curtis Fowler, Range Technician at Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area–
As spring turns into summer, bison at the Elk & Bison Prairie have been producing calves almost every week since early April. Memorial Day weekend marks the time that elk normally start producing their calves at the Elk & Bison Prairie. The first calf was seen on June 8; however, there are likely a few others hiding in the bushes. Bugle Corps staff have spotted 4 elk calves so far over the past week.
This week, we located one of the newest calves and tagged it (as required by state regulations). This female calf was around 2 days old. There are likely several more elk calves in the Elk & Bison Prairie, but they are seldom seen at this time of the year. Capturing them at this early age makes it much easier for us to track how many calves we have at a given time, since they all look alike. We need tags to discern if a calf we saw at 8am is a different calf than one we saw at 8pm. With enough tagged calves and enough herd watching, we can eventually determine how many calves were likely born, how many survived, and identify their mothers.
Elk cows leave their calves hiding in the tall grass or thick cover while they go about their daily business of feeding and hanging out with other cows for most of the day. A few times during the day and night, a cow will quietly leave its friends and go to where its calf is hidden, call her distinctive bark, and listen for her calf’s distinctive whine. The calf will hop up and get some nurturing and feeding time. Then, mom will move the calf a short distance and leave it alone again for a few hours.
The calf’s primary defense is its lack of scent and keeping absolutely still. Coyotes, bobcats, black vultures, turkey vultures, and even bald eagles roam the Elk & Bison Prairie and take a small number of elk calves. Elk cows will defend their calves from predators if they happen to be nearby, and they are very careful to watch out for these whenever approaching or leaving their hiding sites.
Once a calf is old enough to keep up with the elk herd, its chances for survival become much better, and most will survive from that time forward here in the prairie. Calves will be seen more often during late summer.
Please remember to stay in your vehicle while visiting the Elk & Bison Prairie.