Earlier this month, Whidbey Island’s one and only elk, Bruiser, attacked a little red car, putting a hole in a door and breaking a window with his antlers.
While at least one witness to the event was alarmed, state wildlife agents have no plans to intervene into the aging bull elk’s island life, except to warn people not to annoy the 1,000-pound ungulate.
Ralph Downes, an enforcement officer for the state Fish and Wildlife, explained that Bruiser is in the middle of the rut, so he’s moodier than normal.
“He’s getting old. He’s a little crotchety,” Downes said. “Maybe more so than he used to be.”
The longtime wildlife agent estimates that Bruiser is about 15 years old, so he’s an old man in elk years. In the wild, a bull elk lifespan averages about 10 to 13 years, while they can live up to 20 years in captivity.
Downes said life on North Whidbey is something in between the wild and captivity for Bruiser. He doesn’t have to spar with other males or worry about leading a herd. Food is plentiful on the island and there are no predators. At the same time, he’s free to roam and run into trouble, which has famously included getting an assortment of objects tangled in his antlers — including a bicycle, a bucket and tarps.
Downes said Fish and Wildlife received several reports from people about the Sept. 13 incident in which Bruiser attacked a car.
According to a witness account, Bruiser was walking alongside Polnell Road when the drivers of a couple of cars stopped to watch him. After one of the vehicles left, Bruiser crossed the road and attacked the small red car, goring the driver’s side front quarter-panel and shattering a window. He then sauntered away.
The witness, who is a resident of the area, also described walking on the same road, encountering Bruiser and running away because he was being aggressive toward her. The woman asked Fish and Wildlife to relocate him.
“I have no doubt that Bruiser would attack a person. I am seriously concerned for my safety and the safety of others in the area of Strawberry Point,” she wrote in an email to the state agency.
Downes, however, said Bruiser will be staying put. The elk’s survival could be imperiled if he was moved to a different area this late in his life, plus the process of darting and hauling the animal is very stressful. And the wildlife agent simply doesn’t believe that the elk is a danger to the community.
“I think you are far more likely to get hit by a car when jogging than being gored by an elk,” he said.
Downes concedes that Bruiser doesn’t like it when cars stop so people can goggle at him; his son recently experienced the elk’s grumpy side while driving on North Whidbey and pulling over to take photos of the roadside curiosity. This time of year is elk mating season, so aggression-inducing hormones are coursing through the big male.
When Bruiser bruiser lowers his antlers and starts pawing the ground, it’s time to drive off and give him space, Downes advises.
Ironically, the car attack occurred on the 11th anniversary of the intrepid elk’s arrival on the island, or at least the anniversary of the first time he was spotted. Downes said he remembered getting the report in 2012 and doubting that it was true, only to learn soon afterward that the elk wasn’t an illusion. The big boy was dubbed “Bruiser” by residents soon afterward.
While there are different hypotheses about how Bruiser got to the island, Downes said the elk most likely swam over to North Whidbey from Skagit County, perhaps the La Conner area.
Downes explained that a young bull elk had started a “satellite” herd with a couple of cows two years prior and roamed around the western part of Skagit County. The wildlife agents kept track of the small herd until one day they simply disappeared.
About that same time, Bruiser showed up on Whidbey Island. Downes believes it’s very likely that Bruiser was the leader of the small herd and ended up on Whidbey mostly by accident. The elk could have gone for a swim or perhaps got swept down the Skagit River and then had trouble getting back on the Skagit side due to the treacherous mudflats. Perhaps he swam for the safety of Whidbey.
The first few years that Bruiser was on Whidbey, he’s occasionally be seen at the water’s edge, bugling toward his former home across the water.