For thousands of years, massive herds of Tule Elk ranged across California like bison roaming the great plains. Weighing more than 500 pounds and able to run as fast as a racehorse, they were among the most majestic animals in the west.
There were once a half a million native tule elk found in the state. By the mid 19th century, it was believed that the tule elk were completely wiped out. But in 1874 a small handful were found hiding in a marsh-thicket near Bakersfield. Cattle Baron Henry miller felt compelled to save these last survivors and set aside land for them to graze on. 100 years later, tule elk officially received protected status and descendants of that last herd were reintroduced to other locations around the state. For the past 30 years native California tule elk have been reclaiming their place in the open spaces around the bay.
We visit Point Reyes National Seashore where scientists are studying elk behavior in what can be considered a “semi-controlled habitat.” Think of it as a huge tule elk laboratory. In the 2600 acre elk reserve, researchers can monitor the wild elk population and better understand how these animals affect the environment. Elk Management learned here may benefit a group on the other end of the San Francisco Bay Area.
It may surprise people to learn that there are wild elk herds just 30 minutes away from the Silicon Valley. We meet former Santa Clara County Game Warden Henry Coletto who, in the late 1970s, worked with the State of California to bring tule elk back the Mt. Hamilton Range. Unlike the main herd at Pt. Reyes, the elk on Mt. Hamilton are free to roam anywhere. And that presents some land management issues.-
In order to help manage the herd and provide land owners with an incentive to maintain elk habitat, the California Department of Fish & Game has instituted a limited hunting program. Since only a few hunting tags are issued each year, hunters will pay top dollar to bag a trophy tule elk. This can be a windfall for ranchers willing to maintain elk on their land.
Statewide, there are more elk now than at any time since Abraham Lincoln was President. Yet now with increasing development throughout the bay area, their biggest threat is loss of habitat. Working with private land owners and setting aside open space will insure that this majestic animal will always have a place to call home.
Eco-Architecture and Elk Return to the Bay Area (episode #105) airs tonight on QUEST at 7:30pm on KQED 9, and KQED HD, Comcast 709. (full schedule)
You may also view the entire Elk Return to the Bay Area story online.
Additional Photos for this story are also available on our KQED QUEST Flickr set.
Chris Bauer is a Segment Producer for television on QUEST, and is the producer for this story.