The Science of Sustainability

Discuss the "Elk Return to the Bay Area" TV story

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For thousands of years, massive herds of Tule Elk ranged across California like bison roaming the great plains. Weighing more than 500 pounds and able to run as fast as a racehorse, they were among the most majestic animals in the west.

There were once a half a million native tule elk found in the state. By the mid 19th century, it was believed that the tule elk were completely wiped out. But in 1874 a small handful were found hiding in a marsh-thicket near Bakersfield. Cattle Baron Henry miller felt compelled to save these last survivors and set aside land for them to graze on. 100 years later, tule elk officially received protected status and descendants of that last herd were reintroduced to other locations around the state. For the past 30 years native California tule elk have been reclaiming their place in the open spaces around the bay.

We visit Point Reyes National Seashore where scientists are studying elk behavior in what can be considered a "semi-controlled habitat." Think of it as a huge tule elk laboratory. In the 2600 acre elk reserve, researchers can monitor the wild elk population and better understand how these animals affect the environment. Elk Management learned here may benefit a group on the other end of the San Francisco Bay Area.

It may surprise people to learn that there are wild elk herds just 30 minutes away from the Silicon Valley. We meet former Santa Clara County Game Warden Henry Coletto who, in the late 1970s, worked with the State of California to bring tule elk back the Mt. Hamilton Range. Unlike the main herd at Pt. Reyes, the elk on Mt. Hamilton are free to roam anywhere. And that presents some land management issues.-

In order to help manage the herd and provide land owners with an incentive to maintain elk habitat, the California Department of Fish & Game has instituted a limited hunting program. Since only a few hunting tags are issued each year, hunters will pay top dollar to bag a trophy tule elk. This can be a windfall for ranchers willing to maintain elk on their land.

Statewide, there are more elk now than at any time since Abraham Lincoln was President. Yet now with increasing development throughout the bay area, their biggest threat is loss of habitat. Working with private land owners and setting aside open space will insure that this majestic animal will always have a place to call home.

Eco-Architecture and Elk Return to the Bay Area (episode #105) airs tonight on QUEST at 7:30pm on KQED 9, and KQED HD, Comcast 709. (full schedule)

You may also view the entire Elk Return to the Bay Area story online.

Additional Photos for this story are also available on our KQED QUEST Flickr set.

Chris Bauer is a Segment Producer for television on QUEST, and is the producer for this story.

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Category: Biology, Environment, Television

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Media Producer for QUEST. Chris has nearly 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in San Francisco.
  • http://www.elkfoundation.org michael friedenberg

    I appreciate the time you have taken to share the magnificent story of Tule Elk and the restoration efforts that have taken place on the part of thousands of dedicated volunteers throughout the state of California. I would encourage QUEST to follow up on this topic periodically and include more information about the organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Nature Conservancy who are working with those volunteers, donors, and state agencies to keep the Tule Elk forever a part of our California history. This is by far, one of the greatest success stories for a California species recovery. Share it often and share it loud!

  • http://www.homich.org Ed Homich

    Nice work! I used to live in Bakersfield and enjoyed visiting the population that grazes in western Kern County. I frequent the Ownes Valley and always stop on HWY 395 to view the herd nibbling grass in the shadow of the Eastern Sierra.

    I shot photos of a Tule Elk roundup in the 1980's. The herd was being split and shipped up to Mendocino County. The pictures were shot at Grizzily Island in Solano County.

    Photos: http://www.homich.org/gallery/Elk

  • Paula Oakes

    I found this is an online search–I am wondering what role Walter Dow of Lone Pine had in the return of the Tule Elk. He is my great (2) uncle and I had heard he had some role but have yet to find him mentioned.

  • Chris Bauer

    Out of curiosity I did a quick Internet search for “Walter Dow” and “elk” and came up with a number of different references. In “Sierra Nevada: The Naturalist’s Companion” by Verna R. Johnston there is a mention of him.

    “In 1933-1934, through the efforts of Walter Dow of Lone Pine and California Fish and Game, fifty five tule elk were successfully transplanted to the Owens Valley. Lying between the Sierra Nevada and White-Inyo Mountains, with plenty of open range, little ranching, and few people (primarily because the water of the area was owned by Los Angeles and carried away in its aqueduct), Owens Valley seemed ideal for animals that like dry open spaces. Dow obtained permission from Los Angeles for the elk to run free on its land.

    The Elk thrived. In September the bugling of the bulls could be heard in the willows along the Owens River bottoms. Natural browsers and grazers of green vegetation, the elk had no trouble finding a wide variety of food. But as their numbers grew over the years, so did the protests from a handful of cattlemen that the elk were competing for their winter cattle feed, breaking down fences, trampling and wallowing in irrigated alfalfa fields. To appease the ranchers, Fish and Game authorized several hunts to keep the elk total between one hundred and two hundred animals.”

    So it seems your great uncle did indeed play a significant role in restoring the tule elk to an area of the Southern Sierra Nevada. And I thought this passage was particularly interesting in light of what is going on now near Mt. Hamilton. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Thanks for writing in!

  • Paula Oakes

    Thank you for sharing the reference and for the original story! It's nice to know some animals roam–mostly free and that they could do so well in the valley changed so much by Los Angeles. (We have some interesting pictures in a trunk that might illustrate the beginnings of the water being "carried" off to L.A.–but that's a different story, isn't it!?)Thanks again!

  • Anne Krawec

    HI
    I really appreciate this information on the Tule Elk herd. I have been trying to search out this connection for a long time and now have some concrete information on this subject. Walter Dow was my mothers uncle. Her mother was Mable Dow, Walter's younger sister. My mother mentioned that when she went to visit him (Walter) in California that for Christmas decorations he would have many elk statues and wooden outs on his lawn. I believe somewhere in some old photos I have a picture of this.

    I want to thank Jack Schaffer from my genealogy group for finding this information for me and really would like to contact Paula Oakes as she is probably a cousin of mine.

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