A Whole Mess of Elk

Tule elk remain on just the fringes of their native range

By Rob Breeding

I first got to know elk, in of all places, the sagebrush plains of the Eastern Sierra in California near the Nevada border. Those were tule elk, the smallest North American subspecies.

Tule elk were once abundant west of the Sierra, where an estimated 500,000 roamed California’s vast Central Valley. But like most elk populations in the U.S., as settlers moved West the animals were hunted for food and to eliminate competition with livestock, nearly to the point of extinction.

Near extinction for tule elk, as some sources on the Internet have it, was just two animals, a breeding pair. This tale is a reminder that not everything you read online is true. More reliable are the accounts that put the numbers closer to a couple dozen, all rounded up as the last of the Central Valley wetlands were drained for farmland. Those animals became the source for the herds that now dot California. There are about 4,000 tule elk there today.

Tule elk remain on just the fringes of their native range in the Central Valley. That’s farm country, one of the great sources of fresh produce for the entire country. While most folks consider elk as a kind of majestic part of the landscape, for farmers they are a crop-trampling, grass-eating nuisance. That’s why tule elk ended up east of the mountains where the Great Basin Desert noses up to the base of the Sierra Nevada.

It’s not really ideal tule elk habitat, but as the captive herd began to grow that was one part of the state willing to tolerate the animals. The Eastern Sierra is sparsely populated, and there has never been much agriculture in the region because in the early 1900s Los Angeles bought up all the water rights and farmland so the Department of Water and Power could ship the water south to irrigate growth in the West Coast’s largest city.

I didn’t get a chance to hunt those elk, but I did write about them as some of the first special permits were awarded by draw soon before I left California. Oddly, I remember most of the bulls killed had broken tines on their antlers. The guys at the sporting goods shop in the town of Bishop told me the brittle antlers were a result of poor nutrition. They’re called tule elk for a reason: the species evolved in rich marshlands that once covered the Central Valley.

Two other elk subspecies didn’t survive the human wave that swept west in the 1800s. Eastern elk were native to the country east of the Mississippi and Merriam’s elk inhabited the high country of the southwest, especially Arizona. Both species were exterminated by the early 1900s. Rocky Mountain elk have been introduced into both regions to replace the extinct subspecies, and I once had the pleasure of reporting on an elk capture in northern Arizona so the animals could be relocated in Kentucky. I got a helicopter ride out of that assignment.

Merriam’s were noted as being especially large elk, though they were gone before anyone could formally study them. The legend was that they grew large, palmated antlers, a story influenced by the fact that there are only three confirmed pair of Merriam’s antler remains. One set of horns sports thick antlers that look a little moose like. But that’s not all that unique. My friend, the Elk Hunter, has a coffee table decorated with sheds she has collected near Yellowstone, and one antler in particular looks a lot like that famous Merriam’s rack.

Tule, Merriam’s, eastern, they all share a common ancestor, and the eastern and Rocky Mountain subspecies were probably never isolated from one another the way tule were from other elk subspecies. Besides tule, for all we really know their just one species spread out across North America.

Anyway, I’m just glad they’re back.

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