California wildlife managers recently undertook an adventurous, high-flying roundup, plucking 60 tule elk from the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Merced and moving them nearly 200 miles to the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County.
The massive effort required dozens of people, a helicopter, a net gun and a livestock trailer.
It’s part of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s efforts to manage the species that was once thought extinct after gold miners and settlers nearly wiped them out.
How the remaining native elk population grew from a lone herd on a private ranch near the Kern County town of Buttonwillow in 1874, to what is now 6,000 wild tule elk wandering the state in 22 herds is “one of the real, great wildlife success stories in America,” said Peter Tira, a public information officer with Fish and Wildlife.
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The captured and relocated elk are descendants of the original herd that cattleman Henry Miller cared for in the 1870s, Tira said.
The cows, calves and young bulls that now wander free with a wild herd across the grasslands plain were moved there to reduce the population of the fenced refuge and to provide genetic diversity to the wild herd.
As of Monday, another group was in the process of being moved from the Tule Elk Reserve State Natural Reserve to the Owens Valley, Cache Creek in Lake County, and a private herd in San Joaquin County.
While tule elk are the smallest of wapiti in North America, cows are up to 400 pounds. For those big mommas, getting to the free range was a bumpy ride.
“These are big, strong animals. It’s not work for the faint of heart,” Tira said. Still, he said, “Animal safety is the No. 1 priority.”
Wranglers in a helicopter — let’s call them sky cowboys — fired a net gun to trap each elk. Then, elk were either lifted by a rope hanging from the chopper to a team of Fish and Wildlife staff and volunteers — or the team came on four-wheelers to the animals to subdue them, tie their legs and blindfold them.
“You’ve got to tie them up or they’re literally break-your-bones kicking you,” Harry Morse, a Fish and Wildlife information officer who participated in the roundup, told to The Tribune.
Each elk was examined by a team that included a veterinarian and a biologist, who took the vital signs, blood and hair samples and in the case of six animals, applied a tracking device to follow the movement of the herd, Morse said.
The elk were loaded through a chute into the dark truck trailer. Then they took a 2.5-hour drive to what’s left of the grasslands that once stretched across the Central Valley.
Once the animals arrived, “We had to push some of them out of the back of the truck, literally,” Morse said. “And some of them took off into the hills.”