The Tule Elk, A California Comeback Story

By Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

The elk (Cervus canadensis) to this day remains an icon of what once was the unsettled, untamed American frontier.  There are four extant subspecies of elk in North America.  The Manitoban elk (C.c. manitobensis) is exclusive to Canada, but the other three subspecies can be found in California.  They are the Roosevelt elk (C.c. roosevelti) of the north coast rainforests, Rocky Mountain elk (C.c. nelsoni) of the northeastern counties, and the tule elk (C.c. nannodes) native to the Central Valley.

Elk distribution in California.

Elk distribution in California.  Photo courtesy of the DFW Elk Management Program.

Tule elk look similar to other elk in general size, shape, and color (albeit tules wear a slightly lighter brown).  Generally speaking, however, tule elk are overcome in maximum size by both Rocky Mountain elk and the great Roosevelt elk.  A good sized Roosevelt bull, the largest of the subspecies, can reach 1,000 pounds or more.  Tule elk are the smallest subspecies; in fact, at one time they were colloquially referred to as ‘dwarf elk’.  A large bull tule elk will tip the scales at about 700-800 pounds (hardly a ‘dwarf’ by any means), yet under ideal conditions they may grow larger.

The tule elk, the smallest of the elk subspecies, are best adapted to open country and semi-desert conditions among elk races (McCullough 1969).  Image source: CDFW

Tule elk once roamed the San Jaoquin Valley in ample numbers.  Early settlers found tule elk roaming the foothills of the Sierra Nevada west to the central Pacific coast and from the headstream of the Sacramento River south to the Tehachapi Mountains.  Much like the affliction of the American bison on the Great Plains, tule elk became a casualty of human settlement — particularly after the Gold Rush.

Unregulated market hunting, competition with livestock, and the introduction of nonnative plant species all contributed to the decline of tule elk.  What was more devastating, however, was the conversion of elk habitat to agricultural land.  When settlers turned to the plow not only did it remove food and cover resources for elk, it also brought about direct conflict between elk and farmers.  Increasing crop and fence damage fueled campaigns for the removal of the tule elk by those individuals whose livelihoods were affected.  By the time elk hunting was banned by the state legislature in 1873, it was unknown if any tule elk even remained.

Luckily tule elk did remain, thanks in part to the protection provided by California cattle baron Henry Miller.  In 1874 a pair of Tule elk was discovered on the Miller and Lux Ranch by a local game warden at Button Willow.  Miller set aside 600 acres (near present day Tule Elk State Natural Reserve) to give the elk a chance to rebound.  In 1914, the elk had experienced such growth in numbers that Miller requested the California Fish & Game Commission work to relocate the elk from his ranch.

In order to relieve Miller from elk damage to his property and crops (reportedly estimated at $5,000 per year), the U.S. Biological Survey attempted to relocate tule elk by lassoing them from horseback and transporting them to new areas, with little success.  From 1914 to 1934 the California Academy of Science took on tule elk relocation activities 21 times over the next several decades.  These attempts were not very successful either, although they did contribute to establishing the herds at Owens Valley, Cache Creek, and the Tupman Reserve.

From 1971 through 1989 complete species protection was granted to tule elk.  State and Federal laws were passed to prohibit hunting of tule elk until a population of at least 2,000 was reached.  Habitat improvement programs combined with an aggressive reintroduction campaign by the Department of Fish & Game and other state and federal agencies yielded a significant increase in California’s tule elk population.

Tule elk of the San Luis National Wildlife Refugre, circa 1970s.  Image source: BLM 3rd Annual Report to Congress on The Tule Elk.

Tule elk of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, cca the 1970s. Image source: BLM 3rd Annual Report to Congress on The Tule Elk, March 1, 1979.

Today there are twenty-two tule elk herds in the Golden State, totaling around 4,200 individuals with the population trending upward.

Due to competing land use practices, it is not easy for tule elk to freely move between sub-populations; this requires the Department of Fish & Wildlife to take action in order to meet statewide management objectives.To help maintain healthy herds, every so often CDFW is tasked with capturing and relocating healthy elk to different established

Dr. Annette Roug (right, kneeling) leads a team of biologists as they attempt to weigh a cow elk.  Photo credit: Joe and Nancy Rodrguez.

Dr. Annette Roug (front right) leads a team of biologists as they attempt to weigh a cow elk. Photo credit: Joe and Nancy Rodrguez.

herds.  Removing elk from one herd and placing them in another helps to simulate the natural movement of individuals between herds which increases genetic diversity, an important function of a healthy population.

The Wildlife Investigations Lab took part in one such capture and relocation effort at the end of March.  A total of 36 elk were captured via helicopter from the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos.  Once elk were netted from the helicopter, they were processed by capture teams.  Capture teams took measurements, collected hair, blood, and other biological data to assess the health of the herd before they moved on to their new locations.

The animals were successfully released to join their new herds.  A portion of the captured animals were also radio-collared to collect post-release movement information.

An elk sets eyes on joining its new herd.  Photo courtesy of Joe and Nancy Rodriguez.

An elk sets sights on joining its new herd. Photo courtesy of Joe and Nancy Rodriguez.

To read the CDFW news release from this successful capture, click here.

For more information on the CDFW Elk Program, click here.

Interested in more tule elk biology?  Click here.

 

 

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