I have a theory as to why…
Once, I found myself in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, bouncing along a two-track in the Red Desert of Wyoming watching a herd of at least 300 elk running at full sprint. Surrounding the tight herd of massive elk was a battalion of pronghorn antelope as if they were guiding the elk. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t capture it on video. I did, though, get this shaky video of a smaller herd later that day:
Two years later, I was driving on a different dirt road, this time in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming, heading back to my cabin after a long day of cutting wood. It was pitch black with only my headlights illuminating the road. Suddenly a cow elk running at full speed emerged from the darkness onto the two-track directly in front of my pickup. I was able to capture this blurry image on my cell phone:
As I was processing this scene, a pronghorn doe passed my truck from behind on the left, passed the elk cow then merged right onto the road directly in front of the elk. So it was the pronghorn doe, followed by the cow elk, followed by me in my pickup. So, if that wasn’t amazing enough, a red-tailed hawk suddenly whizzed between the antelope and elk out of the darkness and flew directly into the grill of the truck. THUMP! Then, just as I was processing THAT, a massive rock chuck bolted out into the road and I instinctively swerved to miss it. I spun a beautiful, 360-degree cookie in the gravel. When I came to a stop, I was in a cloud of dust from the spinout. The pronghorn doe and cow elk were gone. The hawk was mangled in my grill and it was really quiet.
A Theory was Born
I realized that was the second time I’d seen antelope running with elk, and both times it looked like the antelope were leading the elk. I kept thinking about it on the rest of the drive back to the cabin.
It made some sense, if the longstanding legend that elk used to be plains animals is true. The basic theory states that over time, elk migrated and adapted to a more mountainous environment. So, who’s to say there isn’t some kind of natural connection between the two species from way back in the past when they were both plain dwellers.
The theory I formulated was that elk probably used the antelope as sentries because antelope hang out on top of hills where they can see the farthest in all directions. As soon as the antelope would see something in the distance, the antelope would become wary. The elk would keep an eye on the antelope and follow their lead as to which direction would be the best to run. Once both herds were moving, the elk would bunch up and the antelope would gravitate to the elk herd for additional deception from the approaching danger as well as for protection. The buck antelope would lead the stampede while the does and fawns surrounded the elk herd. At least that’s how I imagine it would be.
Holdouts or Transplants?
Why is there a huge elk herd in the Red Desert of Wyoming? Well, that’s been debated for as long as I can remember. Some folks say that in the 1940s or 1950s, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department transplanted a large herd of elk from Yellowstone to the Red Desert of south-central Wyoming in an attempt to create a new migration route between the desert and Yellowstone. Others will tell you the Red Desert elk herd never migrated to the mountains when the other elk did.
My unscientific theory is whenever the two are in the same ecosystem, they instinctively pick up where they left off. They protect each other and utilize each other to survive. Maybe. I’ve seen it twice.
I am curious to hear what you think. Find me on Facebook and give me your opinion!