The morning sun hangs low over the San Emigdio Mountains as two all-terrain vehicles brake amid clouds of dust. Volunteers clutching binoculars tumble out to scan the dun-colored hills.
Someone has spotted a herd of tule elk.
“I see two raghorns, four spikes, and a bull—and there are more behind them.”
“It’s a big group. Looks like all bachelors. No cows.”
“I count six, seven, eight, more.”
The call-and-response accelerates, cameras snap, and details are finalized and logged onto an iPad: quantity, size, age, sex, location, distinguishing characteristics.
I am on this remote, windswept peak to participate in the annual tule elk inventory. Each fall, approximately 60 volunteers gather to tally the elk on rugged Wind Wolves Preserve in Kern County, 35 miles southwest of Bakersfield, off Highway 166. At 93,000 acres, Wind Wolves is the largest nonprofit nature preserve on the West Coast.
At the end of our daylong safari, my fellow elk watchers, who scattered across bumpy dirt roads in 14 teams to cover as much of the preserve as possible, return to Wind Wolves headquarters sweaty, sunburned, hungry, dusty, but exhilarated.
We have identified and logged 445 tule elk, majestic animals native to California that once roamed the state’s grasslands in astonishing numbers: upwards of 500,000 of them once lived here but were already considered extinct 150 years ago.
The story of the tule elk’s demise and rebirth is a fairy tale of rewilding but also poses existential questions for humans, who must wrestle with how to balance conservation efforts with 21st-century agribusiness in an increasingly developed state. As debates grind on, the Golden State’s population of tule elk, which are a protected species, has slowly increased from one lone breeding pair a century ago to 5,700 animals on more than two dozen preserves today.
As for the generally upward trajectory of tule elk at Wind Wolves, the numbers “represent a hopeful story of nature’s resilience and a hard-won fruit of our mission,” says Frazier Haney, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, the nonprofit that operates 23 preserves in California and Oregon, including Wind Wolves.
Tule elk stand around six feet tall but are the smallest of three elk species native to California (the others are Rocky Mountain elk and Roosevelt elk). Females can reach 425 pounds, while males top out at 800 and display the trademark six-point antlers that span four feet. They are adaptable to many climates and terrains throughout the state; their habitat once extended as far south as the Transverse mountain ranges on the Wind Wolves preserve.
“Tule elk are part of the fabric of the state’s iconic landscape and deserve to be here as much as people,” says Landon Peppel, deputy director of Conservation and Restoration Programs for the Wildlands Conservancy.
Their story is a sad and all-too-familiar one for California’s large wild mammals: As hordes of Europeans descended during the gold rush, the state’s tule elk were slaughtered en masse for their meat, hides, and tallow. Fenced cattle ranches replaced wilderness, invasive plants crowded out the elks’ favorite native grasses, and water was diverted to cows and farms.
By 1873, when California finally passed a law that banned the hunting of tule elk, it was unclear whether any still existed. Slowly they receded into myth, just like the California grizzly bear that adorns our state flag.
Then, according to conservation journalist Jaymi Heimbuch, a game warden named A.C. Tibbett reported a startling discovery in 1874: in the tule marshes of Buena Vista Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley, he’d stumbled across 12 “extinct” tule elk, including one breeding pair.
Tibbett worked for Henry Miller, a wealthy man known as the state’s Cattle King, who ran more than 1.3 million acres in California, Nevada, and Oregon but was sensitive to the changes his industry had wrought upon the land. Miller vowed to bring back the native species.
The Cattle King banned the killing of tule elk on his vast properties and launched vaqueros on search parties to look for any elk that remained. The handful of animals flourished and multiplied, but eventually they started damaging cattle fences and overbreeding, so Miller asked the government to relocate his excess elk to Sequoia, Yosemite, and other wilderness parks.
This was undertaken with mixed success. A total of 235 elk were moved to 22 locations between 1914 and 1934. In Sequoia, 21 elk were reintroduced but died out by 1926. A Yosemite herd reached 28 animals by 1928, but then the park stopped accepting more. Where elk were confined to small acreage, they cropped the hills bare and starved or required artificial feeding, which was deemed unsustainable.
For a time, it looked as though the tule elk were headed back toward extinction.
Then in 1933, moved by the elks’ plight, another California rancher, named Walter Dow, crated and transported some animals to his land in the Owens Valley. Their descendants now number more than 400, including a herd that is a popular tourist sight south of Big Pine off Highway 395. After bitter battles with ranchers, an arrangement with the California Department of Fish and Game (now called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife), which has jurisdiction over all elk in the state, capped the size of the Owens Valley herds at around 500.
Today, 22 separate tule elk herds dot the state. They can be found on protected wilderness such as Wind Wolves, but also on Native land and military bases, in state parks, and on private ranches that were once part of the elks’ historic range.
In Point Reyes, in Northern California, a herd that started with two bulls and eight cows in 1978 swelled to 441 animals by 2009 inside a 2,600-acre fenced enclosure. In addition, two free-roaming herds on the peninsula’s southern tip grew from 160 animals to 212 by 2014. But drought, restricted habitat, and exploding population produced a Malthusian result: the Point Reyes herds collapsed around 2012, with half the animals dying due to drought-related starvation and thirst. Meanwhile, local dairy farmers complained that free-roaming herds in the south trampled fences, strayed onto their land, and consumed forage and water needed by cows.
The friction between conservationists and landowners has simmered for decades and only grown worse with California’s superdrought, which has left cattle and elk vying for resources. For much of the 20th century, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife prohibited the hunting of tule elk and sought to manage the populations through contraception and relocation. But once the population reached 2,000 animals statewide, the agency began issuing limited permits to hunt the elk on some preserves and private land. In 2020, 127 tule elk hunting permits were managed by the state. Some were for trophy hunting and others for culling excess animals from military properties managed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Other permits were granted for tribal harvest programs, since tule elk is a traditional food source for Indigenous people.
Because it’s trying to grow its population, Wind Wolves does not allow hunting on its preserves. Instead, the elk range freely over the terrain, which encompasses the original San Emigdio Land Grant once owned by explorer John C. Frémont and includes forest, grassy hills, semidesert, and a year-round creek. The landscape also is home to kit foxes, burrowing and other owls, coyotes, bears, hawks, kites, bobcats, condors, deer, and mountain lions, which have been known to dine on Wind Wolves elk. Chumash, Yokut, and Kitanemuk Indian tribes that once lived here have left art and archaeological sites, and 25 miles of hiking and biking trails are open to the public.
The Wildlands Conservancy bought the land in 1996 from a corporation that intended to build a hazardous-waste site in the mountain canyons, according to Haney. Instead, the conservancy began to rewild the cattle-cropped land with saltbush, willows, and other native plants. It brought back an almost-extinct cactus and built burrows to encourage the endangered kit fox. And in 1998, it launched a pilot program with the state to reintroduce 19 tule elk.
Later, the preserve brought in dozens more “excess elk” from other preserves. From that seed stock, the elk have flourished. During this year’s count, a volunteer even spotted one of the original elk forebears, whose collar allows biologists to track it. The total count for 2022: 445 animals, down slightly from 477 in 2021. But that’s considered a normal annual variation and not an immediate cause for concern, says Melissa Dabulamanzi, Central Valley regional director for Wildlands. “This year’s count was toward the end of rutting season, and the groups were starting to disperse,” Dabulamanzi says. “Very likely, the 477 we counted last year are still on the landscape, and maybe more.”
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife estimates that the vast size of Wind Wolves could sustain as many as 2,500 tule elk, and Haney says the preserve would be an “enthusiastic recipient” of additional relocated elk to diversify the gene pool and grow its herds.
The annual count takes place in the late summer/early fall because that is when the elk are fighting, breeding, and most visible. I’d hoped to catch some clanking of antlers as big bull males fought for cows and to hear bugling, the high-pitched whistles bulls use to woo cows, but the census was postponed this year due to September’s heat dome.
By the time of our visit, the elk have mostly sifted themselves into two groups. Nature’s lottery winners are the big bulls we see leading herds of up to 50 cows (known as harems), along with a few straggler bulls that loiter in the faint hope that the lead bull might fall down a ravine. The second group consists of males, ranging from spikes (yearlings whose antlers are just emerging) to raghorns (two- to three-year-old males in early adulthood) to bull males that have been unsuccessful in attracting females (call them the incel elk).
Winners or losers, there’s a transformative quality to watching these magnificent animals enact the timeless rituals of breeding and rebirth in their native terrain, cycles that were ancient long before the first conquistador arrived in the New World.
Ecologists and conservationists know they stand on an antler’s edge in promoting rewilding of California’s nature preserves while balancing the livelihoods of the state’s cattle ranchers and farmers, which is why more remote preserves such as Wind Wolves are so important. And as superdrought, new subdivisions, and roads continue to intrude into the tule elk’s historic habitat, the fragile fate of California’s only native elk species remains unwritten.•