Tule Elk Rutting

October 17, 2008

You can still see tule elk, the smallest of North America’s elk, fighting for territory, mating, and raising their young in the Bay Area. Indeed, Tomales Point on Point Reyes may be the very best place to see them. The bulls compete with each other for control of the breeding herds (harems) with dramatic antler shoving matches. The females also compete for status within the harem.

The elk are about 4-5 feet in height at the shoulder, and mature bulls support large racks that grow anew each year.

But the majestic animals we see today are just a hint of what once was. Before European colonization, up to a half million tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes) grazed California’s grasslands in large herds. But the elk were hunted almost to extinction in the mid-1800s.

Fortunately, a wealthy cattle rancher, Henry Miller, protected a number of elk near Bakersfield, and their slow population recovery dates from his efforts. The current population numbers about 5,000 animals. In the Bay Area, herds of tule elk are now found on Grizzly Island, Tomales Point, and near Mount Hamilton.

After breeding, the elk segregate into cow/calf and male herds. The cows then give birth between May and June of the next year.

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