Each cold icy morning reminds us that winter is still here, but by midday the warm sunshine and the clear blue sky makes it seem as though spring has already arrived. We know better than to put away the winter gear. In Little Lake Valley, the green fields and budding plants can fool us, yet luckily, that ground hog saw its shadow, so we still have six weeks left of winter! The rainfall total we have is somewhere around thirty-two inches, a good amount yet still twenty-five inches below our normal yearly rainfall. January is our typical “wet” month, and we had no rainfall at all! Let’s just hope the rest of this winter is a wet one.
The wetlands on the north end of the valley still have enough ponding for the many species of ducks that winter here. The species this blog will focus on, the Tule elk, act like they enjoy having the water to splash and play in.
Tule elk, Cervus canadensus nannodus, are endemic to California and are protected by the Behr Bill state legislation of 1971 and the Tule Elk Preservation Act federal legislation of 1976. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are the agencies who oversee the management of the Tule elk. There is reported to have been more than 500,000 Tule elk in California before the year 1820 but by 1870 only 20 or less remained! Today the estimated total number of Tule elk in California is 5,700. We estimate our Little Lake population to be around 62 individuals.
Tule elk are browsers and grazers and co-evolved with the native species of plants in California. Here in Little Lake Valley, elk have a good variety of plants to both browse and graze. The wet meadows provide excellent grazing with many grasses, Juncus, and Carex species. The riparian corridors contain willow and cottonwood trees which are preferred browsing in fall and winter. Wetlands offer Bulrush, Western Goldenrod, and other larger herbaceous plants to browse on.
In the winter, the elk splinter off into separate bands. The cows and calves stick together and form one large group with one large bull in its midst. The other 21 bulls of various sizes and antler stages form another group in another area away from the cows. Yesterday, I came across this group of bulls in the northern wetlands we call Watsons. They were quite relaxed, all lying about in a linear fashion, probably enjoying the sunshine as much as I was. The next big event in their lives will be the dropping of their antlers, which happens each year before the cow elk give birth to their calves.
In late winter the bulls begin to look very “motley” with broken or missing antlers, and bloody circles on their heads where antlers used to be. Before we know it, all the bulls have dropped their antlers. This is followed soon by the velvet growth of new antlers, starting as rounded nubs growing up out of their heads. In the reference book, The Tule Elk, by Dale R. McCullough, he states that the largest bulls lose their antlers first and come out in velvet first. This is what makes a bull the dominant one who controls the herd during the early part of the rut (late summer and early fall). Once the other bulls have come out of velvet they will test his dominance, but by then he will have already mated with as many cow elk as he could.
As I watch this somewhat lazy group of males, I wonder what will happen this year with the hierarchy of leadership and if the same large bull who had most of the females last year will again be the one to be dominant. He is the one staying with the large cow elk and young elk herd, maybe hoping to be there as his antlers fall off and begin their incredible growth in the late spring and into summer. He will then be ready to go into rut once again. It is a yearly cycle that varies as to exactly when it will begin and how it will unfold. It is an interesting and exciting process to observe each year in our Little Lake Valley.