February 26, 2018

Photo Essay: In Search of Tule Elk

As many animal sanctuaries as I visit, I'd much rather see these fantastic beasts out in the wild, in their native environments.

And while it may seem like the majority of our wildlife viewing opportunities in Southern California (birdwatching notwithstanding) consist of a mountain lion roaming through the backyard, a black bear taking a dip in the pool, or a raccoon sitting on its haunches inside a storm drain, there are actually a few places you can embark on a safari.

There is, of course, the island where the buffalo roam—though it seems you're alternately just as likely to get gored in the wild interior of Catalina (as what happened recently) as you are to not see a single bison.

I've spent a lot of time looking for wild burros, bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and so on, and I've spent a lot of time coming up empty.

But I hadn't yet been to the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve in Buttonwillow, just a few miles west of Bakersfield in Kern County.

At the viewing platform and visitors center by the parking lot, the most obvious form of wildlife visible was, of course, the birds—including a great horned owl nest with some white fluffy not-quite-fledglings inside and an adult standing guard a few branches below and to the right.

We were surrounded by the songs of house finches hiding in the trees out there as well—but we'd driven a couple of hours to see elk, not birds. Specifically, we had come to witness the tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes), the only species of elk endemic to California—distinct from other species of elk (like Rocky Mountain or Roosevelt elk) not only by its DNA but also by its smaller size.

Because the primary diet of the tule elk is, well, a plant called tule (which isn't the most nutrient-dense feed in the world), these elk are smaller than their cousins in Canada and Alaska—though, at 500 pounds, they're by no means small. (And they're still quite a bit bigger than their relatives, the mule deer, though still smaller than a moose.)

You can recognize the adult males (the bulls) by their antlers, which they shed every late winter and immediately begin to regrow—the nubs eventually evolving into full racks with as many as seven points and weighing as much as 10 or 12 pounds each. When the new rack grows in, it's covered in a "velvet" that can hurt and bleed if struck by a rival male's rack (particularly during "rutting," when the bulls compete to become the dominant and breed with the harem of females). But eventually, when that layer dies off and becomes irritating, the bulls spend a lot of time trying to slough it off by rubbing up against tree trunks and telephone poles.

When the calfs are born, their fur is spotted—much like a baby deer—which provides excellent camouflage in their habitat to protect them against predators. The thing is, though, without the grizzly bears around (our state bar long went extinct here), the tule elk's only real predator is a poacher with a shotgun. Yet they still exhibit genetic adaptations and behaviors (like the mother licking the scent off her newborns) that ensure the survival of the species.

On this late February day, we spotted the harem of females (a.k.a. cows, but not cattle) with their dominant bull, who hadn't yet shed his rack. He led them on a high-speed caravan across the grassland, where they're spooked by the bus on the "auto safari"—though they're a protected species and the biggest animal kingdom danger they face is probably getting poked in the eye by the point on a rack or inextricably locking horns (as the two taxidermied bulls in the visitors center did).

But, of course, as with many species of animals, the biggest threat to their survival is human activity...

...which includes development that encroaches on their territory (not only buildings but also roads)... well as the introduction of non-native grasses and other species that crowd out the plants they rely on for sustenance (like tule reeds) and of grazing livestock that leave little to no food supply (whether native or not).

And then there's the overconsumption of other natural resources, like water. What was once a marshy, fertile land has been sapped if its water supply through drought and diversion—and whatever water you can find in the canals that run through the tule elk reserve has been pumped in.

But despite all this, the herd is thriving (thanks, in part, to park rangers supplementing their diet with alfalfa)—so much so that it occasionally grows too big for these 953 acres, and some individuals need to be relocated to other areas that are currently undergoing repopulation.

Supposedly, you can also find tule elk in the Carrizo Plain National Monument and Wind Wolves Preserve, though I've never spotted them there myself.

But here, in the southern section of the Central Valley (a.k.a. the San Joachin Valley), they were pretty easy to find—and some would even stand still, just staring at us, allowing us to photograph them before they meandered off.

It's a calm time of year for the tule elk, as the new horns begin to grow in on the bulls—some of which will be ready to step up and challenge the dominant bull, and others who will be satisfied living their lives as bachelors and not bothering to try to mate.

Some will never mate; only a fraction of them ever will.

But mating isn't everything... is it?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Island Where the Buffalo Roam
Meet Simon, The Red Fox of the Radioactive Red Forest
Offbeat Travels in the Offseason: Carrizo Plain

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