They're beautiful and magnificent to watch, but mama elk are highly protective of their babies and will get nasty if you get too close.

Yellowstone National Park wants tourists to know that elk with calves are extremely dangerous, park spokeswoman Linda Veress said.

Yellowstone provides a summer range of about 10,000 to 20,000 elk. Most winter at lower elevations outside the park.

Cow elk are much more aggressive towards people during the calving season and may charge or kick. The calving season begins towards the end of May continues through early June, Veress said.

Sometimes the calves are bedded near buildings in very developed areas, she said. "So people exiting buildings and their vehicles want to stay very alert."

For example, in the past week, people saw calves that were newly born, Veress said. One was seen by the road at the north entrance, and other was seen at the edge of a developed area near Mammoth Hot Springs.

If you see elk without calves, still stay away and they probably will just continue to feed or not pay much attention to you.

If they approach, they're probably acting defensively and may rear up if there's a calf nearby, Veress said. "They'll definitely be acting more protective."

So to protect yourself, Yellowstone offers these suggestions:

  • Stay alert. Look around corners before leaving buildings or walking around blind spots because cow elk may bed their calves near buildings and cars.
  • Keep at least 25 yards from elk at all times.
  • If you see an elk acting defensively, back away.
  • If an elk charges you, find shelter in your vehicle or behind a building as quickly as possible.
  • If there are no buildings or vehicles, put as much distance between you and the elk as quickly as possible, and get behind a large tree or rock.
  • If you see a calf by itself, do not touch it. Report it to a ranger.
  • You are responsible for your own safety.

Regrettably, the park over the years has had to deal with incidents of people approaching elk, sometimes unwittingly, Veress said. In June 2018, there were two incidents of people rounding the corners of buildings in a developed area of Mammoth Hot Springs, they came across bedded calves, and were kicked by elk.

She urges visitors to read and take the Yellowstone Pledge to stay safe and respect the park and the wildlife.

"We try really hard to get the message out to educate people because a lot of them come from places where there isn't wildlife or geothermal features or even mountains," Veress said. "So we try to get the message out to prevent these incidents from occurring; it's hard to prevent them 100%."