A spry blonde-phase black bear tries nabbing a bit of elk for dinner, only to be thwarted by a devoted mother's defences: it's the kind of thing that happens all the time out in the backcountry of the American West, but humans usually aren't around to see it.

In this case, though, an Arizona couple was lucky enough to observe – and film – the drama as it played out before them. 

Shannon Seville and Joel Floyd came upon the scene recently while tooling around National Forest backroads near the city of Flagstaff. "We were both amazed to see a bear and even more so when we noticed the elk run up the road with her tongue hanging out, in our direction," Seville told The Arizona Republic. "We could tell she was stressed and something was about to happen."

Seville's video shows a smallish black bear grabbing a bleating calf amid deadfall, then springing up a tree trunk as the calf's mother comes trotting up. After a tense standoff, the bear snatches the calf again, only to be driven up the tree once more. The gangly calf – who's had just about enough of this, thank you very much – starts tottering off into the woods, followed up by its mother. As the elk depart, the bear descends to the ground once again and lopes hesitantly after them.

The footage captures some emblematic behaviour in both the elk and bear. North American elk (alternately called by the Shawnee name "wapiti") are among the very largest of deer and commonly roam open parkland and prairie, yet their calves pursue an anti-predator defence more common among smaller forest-dwelling members of the deer family: the "hider strategy" that's also practiced by many antelope.

Like mule or white-tailed deer, elk newborns are spotted for camouflage purposes and spend the first, perilous chapter of their lives mostly hidden away in tall grass or thickets – under the radar of predators, hopefully. Their mothers nurse them only a few times a day, drawing them from concealment to suckle with a high-pitched call and, if danger arises, sending them crouching in cover with a sharp alarm bark.

After a couple of weeks or so – once they're strong and swift enough to run – elk calves graduate from their lying-low ways and start accompanying their mothers in maternal cow-calf herds.

The plaintive bleating you hear from the elk calf in the video is a last-straw behaviour used to alert the mother of a predator's unwanted attention. Cow elk will drive away coyotes and other smaller carnivores, but despite their respectable size – and unlike female moose – they rarely stand up to wolves, bears and bigger marauders.

This particular mother elk, however, showed real moxie confronting the black bear, who obviously wasn't exactly confident in the one-on-one matchup.

Both black bears and grizzlies are enthusiastic, even specialist predators of very young ungulates in North America. They're the definition of opportunistic when it comes to enjoying a bit of red meat: though plant material may be their mainstay, the ursids will quickly shift into hunter mode when a situation presents itself. They may even search intensively for hidden elk calves: first clueing into the presence of a cow and then systematically combing the vicinity by sight and smell.

This [graphic] footage from Yellowstone is not for sensitive viewers.

The window for spicing up their springtime diet is pretty narrow, however. Bears might be startlingly fast at a dead dash, but they're no distance runners – and young elk soon gain the speed and endurance to outpace them. 

A study on grizzly predation on elk calves in Yellowstone National Park showed the bears were most successful in May, then increasingly less successful in June and July as young elk became more agile. (Once calves are out and about with maternal herds, grizzlies will attempt more dramatic hunting strategies – like bursting ambush-style from timber and trying to run them down in brief bursts.)

Seville and Floyd didn't see what happened after the elk ditched the scene. "We wish we knew," Seville told The Republic. "The animals left our line of vision and we weren't about to get out of the vehicle to follow. I imagine nature took its course, however it was meant to. The calf didn't appear injured, and the mother stayed near."

Elk cows will lead their young to new hiding places if one is located by a predator, and this was very likely the intent of the mother in this case, as long as she and her charge managed to outpace the bear.

Either way, Seville and Floyd took their spectator role seriously – very admirable, given that bear predation on elk calves is an age-old dance.

"We did not want interfere, as that's how we were raised," Seville said. "We see elk every day and a bear sighting is few and far between; to encounter them together was an amazing rarity. It's important to respect nature."



Top header image: PJ Mixer/Flickr