Species Spotlight: Tule Elk

tule elk
Photo of Tule Elk by Bev Von Dohre

Sometimes when nature is destroyed it is lost forever, but fortunately that is not always true. California’s tule elk once numbered about 500,000 before nearly going extinct due to hunting and habitat encroachment. But today they are bouncing back. From a tiny population discovered in the Central Valley in the late 1800s, the species has steadily increased in numbers and has returned to the Peninsula and South Bay through support for environmental protection and the process of “rewilding” (returning land to nature).

Meet the Tule Elk: They’re Closer Than You May Think

Tule elk are named after the tule reed found in the marshes and wetlands where they prefer to live. The light beige coats of both males and females are accompanied by a dark brown long haired mane that circles their necks. They tend to be smaller than other elk species although their size might be an effect of the marginal, dry habitats where many live today.

Tule elk were once widespread throughout North America, but European colonization brought overhunting and competition with the Europeans’ cattle and horses. While two of the six North American elk subspecies became extinct, three subspecies of elk are still found in California: Roosevelt elk further north along the California coast, Rocky Mountain elk in eastern California, and tule elk from the Bay Area to the Central Valley.

Intermittent efforts to protect the small herd of tule elk found in the Central Valley back in the late 1800s eventually resulted in some population growth. Some were transplanted back to the Bay Area. The herd in Point Reyes is the most well-known. Less well-known is that a population was brought to Santa Clara County’s Diablo Range in the 1960s and those elk remain here today.

Despite the dry habitat of Mount Hamilton and the Diablo Range, which is less than ideal for the elk, the local tule elk herd has slowly grown and expanded. Drivers on Highway 152 near San Luis Reservoir have a good chance of seeing them. Another population has drifted north and can be found on rural land within San Jose city limits, on Coyote Ridge and down at Coyote Valley’s edge, where they have been mostly blocked from further expansion by Highway 101.

How Elk Can Make a Comeback

Tule elk are at 1% of their original population level, and in our area they have not been restored to their most productive habitat along grasslands and water bodies nearer to the coast. Bringing tule elk back to their prime habitat will allow them to help maintain local grasslands, fulfilling the role that now requires non-native cattle grazing. Elk are also culturally important to many local Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples maintained the elk for millennia here, and they would broadly support their reintroduction.

Despite this, potential resistance by people is the primary barrier to an expanding tule elk population and range. For example, wildlife-friendly fencing policies in cattle ranching areas have to account for the fact that elk, much more than deer, can push through and destroy fences, leading to conflicts between landowners and elk. Stout fences can be constructed that are tall enough that they will keep cattle in while not being a barrier to elk, which can jump much higher than cattle. Individual elk are also undoubtedly more dangerous than individual deer in potential collisions with cars – this would not be likely to significantly harm elk populations but might be perceived incorrectly to be a serious risk to people, despite being vanishingly rare. Collectively, the far more numerous deer are still more dangerous overall, but public education, signage, and general awareness of where elk are found would be helpful as elk move into an area.

Highway 101 is the main physical barrier keeping our local tule elk population from moving west to better habitats. It is not a complete barrier though as two bull (male) elk have been spotted west of the highway recently. One of the reasons Green Foothills supports the protection of Coyote Valley is its importance for wildlife connectivity: further enhancing protected habitat corridors through Coyote Valley might help a viable elk population cross to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Future possibilities could include assisted reintroductions and the inclusion of tule elk from other areas to avoid inbreeding. The return of tule elk to San Mateo County and their further spread across Santa Clara County would be a tremendous improvement in what we see and experience outdoors, a chance to restore a part of nature that was not quite totally lost.

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