Tule Elk Springtime Activity

March 15th, 2023

As spring approaches, the Tule Elk in Little Lake Valley seem to be more present and spread out in the north and south parts of the Mitigation Lands. They are just as likely to be resting on higher and dryer ground as they are running through the inundated pastures. The bull elk are still sporting their formidable antlers but within weeks a big change is coming for them. They begin shedding their antlers in late March and early April. In the weeks leading up to a dropped antler, the bulls are noticeably agitated. They display behaviors such as head shaking and rubbing, like when they are trying to scrape the velvet off their brand-new antlers. During the shedding process, the previous year’s antler detaches from the skull as the “bud” of the new antler pushes up. There may be some discomfort or itchiness that makes them act so unsettled. The fallen antler leaves behind a round bloody spot where the antler was attached; remember this is a once-a-year process! It seems to me that the bulls become more docile after this process and tend to lay around in big groups, not playing as much. Much energy is expelled during the shedding process. It is harder to tell the males and females apart if the antlers are gone, but the neck, body size, and bumps on the bulls’ heads helps.

March 21, 2023

When out in the valley this week I have noticed that many bulls have lost or shed their antlers and are looking quite different. They have knobs on their heads where their antlers used to be, some with round, red bloody circles and others have brown scabbing over pedicels where the antlers were attached. The time for finding shed antlers has begun and it is like a treasure hunt when walking anywhere the Tule elk hang out. The last two years we counted 28 bull elk, including spikes, in the Willits Valley herd so the potential for finding shed antlers is high. The mature bulls have an average of six points or “tines” but can have up to eight points. Three-year-old bulls, called “raghorns” or intermediate bulls, have up to five tines including the brow tine.  A yearling or two-year-old is called a spike and has two straight, long antlers without the brow tines. The antlers of a mature bull can weigh over thirty pounds. This they gracefully carry on their strong necks, though I have seen a few large bulls running with their antlers resting on their backs, and their heads held high. Now that the bulls are shedding their antlers and it will take several months for them to grow back, the bulls have a break until their antlers are fully grown back and ready for the rut in September. It is an interesting idea to consider how it must feel to have twenty to thirty pounds taken off one’s head. No wonder they seem so mellow and lazy these days.

Meanwhile the female Tule elk, or cows, have bulging bellies and are getting ready to calve. Their calves are born from mid-May to June after a gestation period of over eight months. As their calving time approaches, they become reclusive and disappear for 2 to 3 weeks, probably into the tule marshes. Even after the cows reappear, we don’t see much of the new calves until they are older and hiding less. So as the cows are preparing to welcome their calves into the world, the bulls are seemingly everywhere lying around or browsing grass in the pastures. The changes are drastic, but they appear subtle. With spring comes a shift in all aspects of the natural and wild community, and this is just a focus on one species, the Tule Elk.