I've come across many areas that just stink of elk, literally. I have heard two somewhat contradictory stories about these areas.
1) It's simply a bedding area and the smell will last a couple of days. So you have not necessarily spooked them out when you come across these areas.
2) The smell is due to many elk urinating all at once in order to confuse predators. The strong smell makes it difficult to determine in which direction the elk have gone. So when you walk into these areas you have spooked elk very recently.
Any elk experts out there want to shed light as to what these smelly areas represent?
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