Tule Elk Relocated As Numbers Rebound

by on May 07, 2014

Elk were also given a health inspection which included hair and blood sampling. Photo: CDFW

It’s spring and tule elk are on the move in Santa Clara County. It’s not a migration, though. Instead, a herd in the San Antonio Valley Ecological Preserve is expanding with the help of wildlife experts, some sturdy trailers, and a relocation plan for excess elk in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos.

 Although moving can be a stressful under any circumstances — for man or beast — the fact that there are too many tule elk anywhere in California is cause for celebration. Not so long ago, there were almost too few of these native elk to count.

 These animals take up a lot of room,” said Joe Hobbs, a senior environmental scientist for the the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). “Although it’s a big state, it also has a large population (of people). When an animal that big goes from the brink of extinction to living on the landscape in herds, it’s a huge achievement.”

A hood was used to keep the elk calm for their safety as well as staff. Photo: CDFW

A hood was used to keep the elk calm for their safety as well as staff. Photo: CDFW

 A half million tule elk, native only to California, once roamed from Mendocino to the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield. Hobbs said the “homegrown elk” are the smallest of the three subspecies found in the state, weighing anywhere from 400-pound cows to the beefier, 1,000-pound bulls. (The other two subspecies that can be found in California are the Roosevelt, which ranges along the coastal Pacific Northwest, and the Rocky Mountain elk found in northeasterly areas.)

But when the Gold Coast population spiked in the mid-1800s, tule elk were almost hunted and pushed out of existence. Oddly enough, the remaining elk were spared largely through the conservation efforts started by cattle baron Henry Miller, who took a liking to them despite draining prime foraging areas of marshland to make way for profitable farmland.

 Now, about 4,200 of the iconic elk roam around California. By CDFW accounts, there are 22 herds grazing on state-run preserves and national parks. But the elk have shown no reverence for fence lines or private property.

“They’ll go wherever they want,” said Hobbs.

Elk were kept cool and ice and water. Photo: CDFW

Elk were kept cool and ice and water. Photo: CDFW

Teeth were inspected. Photo: CDFW

Teeth were inspected. Photo: CDFW

 So, over the years, herds have been shuffled around the state to maintain good relations between the elk and ranchers. At least 1,500 of the roaming ruminants have been relocated since 1975, according to CDFW records. Even Miller — the man who lobbied so hard to save the species — reportedly removed tule elk from his ranch lands to preserve his property from their trampling ways.

 The most recent reshuffling of elk herds happened at the end of March. For two long days, teams that included wildlife workers from the CDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used helicopters, nets, and on-their-feet expertise to capture 15 bulls, 16 cows, and five calves on the Los Banos reserve.

Before the animals were trailered to new grazing grounds, biologists recorded body weights and collected samples of blood, hair, skin, and teeth. Among other things, that data is used to monitor herd health and analyze DNA for evidence of interbreeding. Then the animals were trucked to one of three areas within a reasonable driving distance: the San Antonio Valley Ecological Reserve in Santa Clara County (north of Mount Hamilton), the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve in San Luis Obispo County, and the Wind Wolves Preserve in Kern County.

 We try to spread the elk around,” said Hobbs. “Before their numbers went up, we were down to a handful of animals, so genetic diversity was really low to start with. If we let herds continue to grow in isolation, it would cause increasing genetic loss.”

Wildlife workers put a tule elk on the scales after capture at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in San Joaquin Valley. Photo: CDFW

Wildlife workers put a tule elk on the scales after capture at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in San Joaquin Valley. Photo: CDFW

 It’s no surprise that moving the elk is a huge logistical challenge. To tip the odds in their favor, wildlife managers schedule such events for the cooler winter months, after the bulls have shed their antlers and before most cows have calves. Younger elk, between one to three years of age, are targeted because they’re easier to integrate into existing herds.

 Nine bulls were delivered to San Antonio Valley, a 3,000-acre preserve on the eastern edge of the Henry W. Coe State Park. They’ll mingle with an existing herd of about 150 tule elk that were reintroduced to the area a few decades ago. As part of a smaller herd, the new bulls will have an easier time getting enough to eat, despite drought conditions that have made it harder for grazing animals to find good forage all across the state.

A young tule elk takes off into new territory, while another waits its turn to exit the trailer. (Not at San Antonio Valley). Photo: CDFW

A young tule elk takes off into new territory, while another waits its turn to exit the trailer. (Not at San Antonio Valley). Photo: CDFW

Young tule elk bull released in San Antonio Valley Ecological Preserve. Photo: CDFW

Young tule elk bull released in San Antonio Valley Ecological Preserve. Photo: CDFW

Now that the number of tule elk are on the upswing, Hobbs said the state is developing a new management plan for the animals. Mountain lions and coyotes don’t keep the population in check. While wild elk might only make it to their early teens, cows leading less stressful lives on managed lands can live into their early 20’s and produce a calf every year. Although birth control has been tested in some herds, it’s not a foolproof method. Most herds are now managed by relocation or culling with a set number of hunting licenses allocated each year, depending on the population and location.

 But culling and relocation options don’t exist for managing all the tule elk herds. The animals in the 500-plus herd at Point Reyes have to stay put. There, a microscopic predator that causes chronic wasting, called Johne’s disease, prohibits any of the elk from being shipped outside the area. The tiny foe, the Mycobacterium avium ss. paratuberculosis, infects the intestinal lining of cattle and other ruminants such as elk, deer, and sheep. The hardy bacteria is shed in manure and then can persist in the soil for years. Even though the disease was discovered in cattle more than a century ago, there is still no cure for it. So no one wants to risk moving the disease around the state along with the elk.

 Still, the success story is the fact that tule elk remain in Central California, said Hobbs. Now the goal is to keep the herds going and minimize conflict wherever they roam.

Tule elk released on the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve in San Luis Obispo County. Photo: CDFW

Tule elk released on the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve in San Luis Obispo County. Photo: CDFW

San Antonio Valley Ecological Preserve is not open to the public except for special events. The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos is open year-round and tule elk can be seen via the auto-tour route.Tule elk can also be viewed at CDFW’s Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, the Tupman Tule Elk State Preserve, and Point Reyes National Seashore.


Jeff Miller on May 7th, 2014 at 1:40 pm

People can join two local Bay Area efforts to save tule elk:

1) Point Reyes National Seashore is updating their grazing management plan and is getting lobbied by ranchers to kill or relocate the free-ranging Limantour elk herd.

Doubtful the Park Service will do that, but they are getting a lot of political pressure to do so from Feinstein, Marin Supervisor Kinsey and the usual west Marin park-bashers.

This even though Pt Reyes cattle trespassing on non-agricultural lands and eating grass intended for wildlife is a far bigger problem than elk in the “pastoral” zone of our park.

Speak up for wildlife on your public land. Go to http://parkplanning.nps.gov and let the Park Service you know you like wild, free-ranging elk on our public lands.

Jeff Miller on May 7th, 2014 at 1:45 pm

2) Help the Alameda Creek Alliance protect the Sunol tule elk herd.

The state Dept. of Fish & Wildlife opened a hunt zone in 2010 for tule elk in Alameda County without any data on population numbers or population trend. The Sunol herd has been declining since the 1990s and was down to 58 elk in 2005, the last published survey.

See http://www.alamedacreek.org/take-action/protect-sunol-tule-elk.php

The state has now either quietly dropped or just stopped reporting on the Alameda tule elk hunt – there is no info on their web site and they refuse to respond to repeated written requests for information.


News Roundup – Fire Hazards, Elk, Ocean Tidbits and More | Redwood Planet Media on May 8th, 2014 at 7:38 pm

[…] other elk news, Santa Clara County will get its own herd of tule elk, which once numbered only 28 animals due to overhunting and habitat depletion. The San Luis […]

Nichola Spaletta on May 10th, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Dear Jeff Miller,
You are wrong in stating the ranchers in the Point Reyes National Seashore want to kill the elk that have left their designated Wilderness area and are now affecting the historic working ranches daily practices. Most of these working ranches on the Pastoral Zone are organic dairies (6) and organic or grass fed beef ranches. These ranches are under strict grazing regulations both with the PRNS and our National Organic Program in the Pastoral Zone intended for cattle grazing under permitted use. Ranchers only want roaming elk relocated safely and humanly back to their 18,000 acres of designated wilderness area for the public to view and enjoy. This will protect historic ranches for future generations. Do you enjoy eating locally, or do you prefer to buy your food from far away? The elk need to stay in the Wilderness. The cattle are to remain in the Pastoral Zone. There is a place for both at Beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore.

Jeff Miller on May 20th, 2014 at 5:13 pm

No, I’m not wrong. The ranchers are lobbying to kill or relocate the free-ranging elk herd.

I’ve been at the scoping meetings in Point Reyes where ranchers are calling for culling or removal.

East Bay Express article on this:

Many of the ranches routinely violate the stocking levels and boundaries of their leases with no consequences from the Park Service – I do not think that constitutes “strict grazing regulations”

Nichola Spaletta on May 26th, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Hello Jeff Miller,
Ranchers do not want elk killed, only placed back (relocate) in their 20,600 acres of designated wilderness set aside for them. Elk are affecting the last 24 remaining Historic working ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore that are organic and or grass fed that have been there for up to 150 years. I too was at both scoping meetings. Why didn’t you ask a rancher like me to answer your questions. There is absolutely no talk of killing these elk by the ranchers. I am at (415)669-1202

Jeff Miller on June 5th, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Nichola – I’ve been at the scoping meetings and heard the ranchers’ comments – and I’ve seen the ranchers quoted in the Pt Reyes Light and W Marin Citizen saying they want the elk removed or culled.

Nichola Spaletta on June 6th, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Dear Jeff Miller,
The 23 pastoral zone ranchers in the Point Reyes National Seashore want elk placed back in the wilderness area safely and humanly. Not culled! We summited a comment letter together. NPS is testing elk now for diseases, maybe diseased elk will have be culled by DFW? Why not give me a call sometime? I feel like I am talking in circles to you. Is it that you just want ranchers in the Seashore to go away or you just think we want the elk killed?

Vince Grimaldi on October 20th, 2014 at 8:20 am

Very simple solution. Allow limited tags for the ones that saved the elk from extinction. Hunters paid for the wildlife because they care about it. Allow limited hunting and you save the species. Otherwise they will be eliminated in time either by disease or red tape. You have to have turnover to have a healthy herd. Take out the old and sick. Ones left will stay one protected side. Allow limited hunting on ranchers side and part easement into park. It will never happen because there are to many anti hunters that think hunting is just blood thirsty and cruel. Cruel is Jonnes disease killing off the herd or starvation from lack of food. My 2 cents….

Bruce Keegan on January 3rd, 2015 at 10:53 pm

The Spaletta’s never owned the land.
A distant relative, The Gallaher’s, sold to the NPS.
Now they want to stay and insist on the removal of the elk.

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