San Luis Obispo County’s population of tule elk, one of the state’s most majestic wildlife species, grew by 12 over the weekend.
State and federal wildlife officials released a dozen elk, also known as wapiti, into the Carrizo Plain National Monument. They had been captured and transported from San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos.
Late Saturday, the doors of a livestock trailer swung open and six cows and six juvenile bulls ran free. They joined hundreds of other elk already on the monument.
In all, 36 tule elk were relocated from the refuge over the weekend. The others went to Wind Wolves Preserve in Kern County and the San Antonio Valley Ecological Reserve in Santa Clara County.
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The weekend project was the latest effort to reinvigorate the tule elk population. San Luis Obispo County’s elk herd is one of nearly two dozen that wildlife agencies have established in recent decades to bring back a species that was teetering on the brink of extinction.
The elk were captured using helicopters firing net guns. Hair, measurements, blood and other samples were taken to evaluate the health of the herd before they were released into their new homes.
The relocations are part of efforts by wildlife officials to re-establish tule elk in suitable habitat in the state after they were driven to near extinction by hunting and habitat loss. Historically, elk inhabited much of the Central Valley until the valley was converted from grassland to cropland and the elk commercially harvested to feed the Gold Rush.
During the 1970s, California had 500 elk in three herds. Today, there are some 4,200 elk in 22 herds.
Since 1975, more than 1,500 tule elk have been captured and relocated. The recovery of the species is a source of pride for California Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists.
“Through CDFW’s wildlife management protocols and collaborative efforts with other wildlife organizations, we now have healthy and thriving herds across the state,” said Joe Hobbs, a senior state environmental scientist. “It is one of the greatest wildlife success stories of our time.”
San Luis Obispo County is home to about 500 elk in the Carrizo Plain area, said Bob Stafford, state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist. About half of them are in the national monument and other half on lands outside the monument, including lands conserved as mitigation for two large commercial photovoltaic plants built in California Valley.
Tule elk are one of three subspecies of elk found in the state and is only found in California. The others are the Roosevelt elk, found in the northwest part of the state, and the Rocky Mountain elk, found in the northeast corner of the state.
Tule elk are impressive animals with the bulls weighing up to 1,000 pounds and the females weighing up to 450 pounds. They live in grassland and marsh habitats.