Travelers driving past San Simeon toward the newly-reopened stretch of Highway 1 may catch a glimpse of a unique herd of elk.
The animals — descendents of those originally brought to the Hearst Castle zoo — have recently been spotted crossing the road and taking in the ocean views at Hearst San Simeon State Park.
William Randolph Hearst made the elk part of his animal collection in the 1920s, along with the famous zebras that now roam the family’s ranch, according to Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations for the Hearst Corporation.
The zoo era ended in 1937, but some of the animals still remain and are free to move about the 83,000-acre Hearst Ranch and surrounding area, Higgins said.
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The 135 elk that still live on the land aren’t native to the area, unlike the Tule elk that can be found farther inland near Pozo and the Carrizo Plain.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife in San Luis Obispo County are in the process of conducting genetic tests to determine which subspecies the Hearst elk belong to, said Bob Stafford, a senior environmental scientist.
Stafford said researchers believe the animals are likely Roosevelt or Rocky Mountain elk.
A herd of 85 elk typically roam about 7 to 8 miles north of San Simeon and Hearst Castle, near the Arroyo de la Cruz creek, Higgins said.
Unlike the zebras, the elk sometimes cross Highway 1 toward the state park, he said.
“The zebras seem to be very mindful of the highway,” Higgins said. “The elk less so.”
Higgins urged travelers driving in the area to use caution if they see the elk in the area, as they may become a traffic hazard.
“It’s a very common sight, assuming you know where to look,” he said.