Week of October 1st, 2023
Autumn has arrived and the shift in day length, nighttime temperatures, and even the quality of the light is a pleasant change from the intensity of summer. The days out on the Mitigation Project are lovely as the colors of the trees and shrubs are changing and the background is filled with the bugling of the Tule Elk bulls as they compete for the cow elks’ attention. Today I am going to revisit these large and important keystone species of Little Lake Valley.
If you have not heard the mournful bugle cry of the Tule Elk bulls, go out early to the north end of Willits, near the highway interchange, and take a moment to listen. For a few more weeks the elk will be in rut, the bulls are fighting for the most females. Bugling can usually be heard from late August to late October. This year we have many large and powerful bull elk so the competition is stiff. At times it looks as if one large bull has most of the cow elk for himself and then the next day the herd is broken up and other large bulls have rounded up a dozen for themselves. Then there are the smaller less powerful bulls that hang out on the fringes of these herds trying to get some action. They run away as soon as the dominant bull becomes aggravated at their encroachment. This is happening all around the Mitigation Lands and on the Willits City fields too. It is possible to feel the tension at times as the bulls vie for female attention. We counted twenty-eight bulls this summer which makes for an interesting situation with only fifty to sixty cows and calves. That is what elk females are called, cows.
Just a review about Tule Elk: this is one of the three species found in California and it is also endemic to the state, meaning it is restricted to a specific region. It is one of the most specialized elk species in North America because they live in open country, though considered highly adaptable because they can live from the semi-arid desert of the Central Valley to the marshes and grasslands of the inner coast range of Mendocino County. Their historic range covered much of the central part of the state, spanning east of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, west to the coastline and north from the headwaters of the Sacramento River, and south to the Tehachapi mountains. This area contained an estimated 500,000 Tule Elk in the early 1800s but by 1870 only a very few were left. This was first due to the hide and tallow business. Then, with so many settlers moving to California during the gold rush, the demand for food and market hunting took its toll. There is evidence that less than half a dozen elk were left by 1870. Two events decided the fate of those remaining Tule Elk. A law was passed in 1873 outlawing Tule Elk hunting. Also, a private citizen named Henry Miller found the last surviving Tule Elk on his property and decided to make a preserve on his land for them. This was highly successful and by 1900 he was asking the government to help relocate some of his herd because of the damage the ever-increasing herd was causing on his ranch.
Early attempts to relocate some of the herd did not work. It was done with horses and ropes and was not very effective, merely stressing for the elk. The next attempt was by the Lawrence Hall of Science in 1934. They used a bait and corral method that worked better, allowing some new herds to increase in the Cache Creek and Tupman Tule Elk Preserve. Since then, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has safely and successfully captured and relocated 1,200 Tule Elk using a variety of capture techniques. The statewide population has increased from three herds totaling 500 elk in 1970 to 22 herds with approximately 5,700 Tule Elk. There has also been natural range expansion that has been successful in the last twenty years.
In the Willits Valley, one lone cow elk was observed traveling across the north end in 2006. In 2020 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife did a helicopter survey in Mendocino County. These were their results: a total of 536 Tule elk in 16 groups were detected. These included 174 elk in Potter Valley, 37 in Willits, 63 in Eden Valley, 182 in Laytonville/Sherwood Valley, and 80 in Covelo. These results and more information about Tule Elk and their management can be found at the
CDFW website, wildlife.ca.gov/conservation/mammals/elk
My colleagues and I agree that the CDFW 2020 survey undercounted the number of Tule Elk that live in the Willits Valley. The helicopter method is fast but is no substitute for a thorough boots on the ground approach. Drone technology also provides an efficient, nonintrusive method. The Willits RCD crew has counted a total of up to 80+ individual Tule Elk on the Willits Mitigation Lands, and that number fluctuates year-to-year. Tule Elk are magnificent animals, and we are fortunate to have them as part of the valley ecosystem.