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Artillery practice didn’t faze rebounding tule elk herd at Camp Roberts

The dominant bull tule from the Camp Roberts herd looks up from drinking to keep an eye on observers.
The dominant bull tule from the Camp Roberts herd looks up from drinking to keep an eye on observers. Telegram-Tribune

The Central Coast is a refuge for threatened and endangered species.

The region has enough remote wild country that sea otters, antelope, Tule Elk and California Condors all call it home.

The last raft of surviving sea otters was anchored off of the Bixby Bridge south of Big Sur, less than 20 were there in 1938. On a good day today there are that many inside Morro Bay alone with a total population over 3,000.

Now there are almost 10 times the number of condors reintroduced to the wild as there were when the last 27 were captured 1987. The captive breeding program has given hope that the species won’t go extinct as birds are released north of Cambria.

In Nov. 1983 a group of elk was located to near Pozo but they tend to roam through fences.

The elk population has rebounded and California Department of Fish and Wildlife [formerly Department of Fish and Game] allocated 325 hunting tags across the state for elk in 2017. In the previous year 76% of the tags were successfully filled.

Former newspaper photographer Tony Hertz is now a landscape photographer who also teaches at Cuesta College.

Elizabeth Thompson wrote this story for the Aug. 17, 1979 Telegram-Tribune:

Despite guns, tule elk doing just fine

Tule elk, once hunted almost to extinction in California, today are facing a different kind of artillery, and appear to be none the worse.

Though shots from howitzers scream over their heads almost daily, the small herd of elk roaming the grasslands of Camp Roberts seem right at home, accepting jeeps, troop transports and heavy artillery as part of their natural environment.

“They’re familiar with it and it doesn’t shake them up,” said base commander Col. Douglas Baird. The elk are part of a group of 40 taken last December from the Tupman Tule Elk Reserve near Bakersfield and relocated on ranges at Camp Roberts and Fort Hunter Liggett.

Of the 21 elk released at Camp Roberts, two died while being transported, and one was hit and killed by a car along San Marcos Road.

But their numbers were more than replenished this spring with the birth of four calves at the military installation.

Tule elk are the smallest of the three elk species found in California, weighing up to 700 pounds. The largest species, the Roosevelt elk, can reach weights of 1,2000 pounds.

Though not presently endangered, the tule elk, once numerous in the inland valleys of the state, were hunted almost out of existence in the mid-1800s by hungry participants in the California gold rush.

At one point, in the 1870s, biologists believed only a single pair might still exist in the wild.

The State Legislature had banned all elk hunting in California in 1873, but many thought the breed already to be extinct.

Total protection, however, allowed the elk to recoup, eventually increasing to about 1,000 animals today.

But increasing numbers of elk have lead to increasing complaints by farmers. The animals have destroyed crops and fences and overgrazed pastures.

Partially in response to these complaints, and in an effort to insure the elk’s survival, biologists have been relocating the animals to various areas throughout the state since 1904.

The Camp Roberts-Fort Hunter Liggett move was the latest in this series, and like most of the other relocations appears to have been successful.

The two military camps were chosen for the move because of their vast open spaces, good grasslands and isolation form farmers and homeowners, said James L. Lidberg, a Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist stationed in San Luis Obispo County.

“One problem with the Tule elk is there are very few places that can take the pressure of having the elk there,” he said, explaining that the animals have an uncanny ability to get through or over almost any kind of fencing.

“Several private landowners have indicated they’re willing to have tule elk but when we go in and tell them the consequences of having tule elk on their property they back off.

“You just can’t believe the damage these things can do to crops.”

The elk were relocated from Tupman, Lindberg said, because the herd there was becoming overcrowded.

“We also chose the Tupman herd because of their docile nature,” he added. “They’d been confined (on about 400 acres) and all their life and we felt they wouldn’t move away from the area (at Camp Roberts.)

So far the herd has shown no interest in moving off the base, said Paul A. Dubsky, fish and wildlife administrator for the Fort Ord complex, which manages wildlife programs at Fort Ord, Camp Roberts and Fort Hunter Liggett.

As long as they have a suitable habitat there’s no reason for them to move,” he said. But even though the elk have settled down and are producing offspring, Dubsky and Lidberg said it will be a long time before hunting of the animals is again allowed.

State law forbids any hunting of the elk until their numbers reach 2,000.

“At this point we don’t have any idea if or when they’ll reach 2,000,” Lidberg said.

“If they do reach the limit there’s a good chance of hunting (the elk) being at Camp Roberts or Fort Hunter Liggett because they have hunting programs already set up,” Dubsky said.

The camps are opened up to hunters for a short period each year. Hunting permits issued by the installations help fund wildlife programs throughout the year. But until the state says otherwise, the elk are off limits to hunters. Camp Roberts personnel are making sure hunters know what not to shoot by posing signs depicting deer and elk to show the difference.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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