Saturday, March 7, 2015

Owens Valley's Tule Elk

It’s been called one of the rarest mammals in the world, it grazes freely throughout most of the Owens Valley, and you might see a few along US 395 south of Big Pine to the west. But they are not native to the Owens Valley. The tule elk were brought here to help save the species.

For centuries vast herds once darkened the plains of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. This unique, smaller species of “dwarf elk” is found only in California, but they might have been found only in the pages of history had it not been for the efforts of two ranchers: one who gave a handful of elk a place to hide, and the other who gave them a place to live.

In the mid-1800s the elk were near extinction, and concerned agencies desperately tried to rebuild the herds. But efforts were fraught with failure. It wasn’t until 80 years later that a second rancher came along and accomplished what others couldn’t. In 1933, the rare animals were brought to the Owens Valley. And their ancestors had a story to tell.


For hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, Native Americans relied on these California elk mostly as beasts-of-burden; they occasionally ate its meat, while their abundant antlers were prized for tool making. The first Europeans to see the elk reportedly took place in 1579 when Francis Drake landed near Bodega Ba, and was later quoted as saying, “…infinite was the company of very large and fat Deere (sic) which there we saw by the thousands…” In Europe, elk were referred to as deer.

  As late as the early 1800s, California tule elk numbers were estimated at 500,000. Early pioneers killed just enough elk to satisfy for their individual needs. But that all changed during the 1849 Gold Rush when California’s population grew exponentially along with the need for fresh supplies. Elk were plentiful, and became a cheap source of meat, lard and fur. But the bounty quickly dwindled as elk numbers plummeted. Alarmed by their precipitous decline, the State Legislature banned all hunting of elk in 1873. But by then, no one knew if any still existed. In fact, according to recent studies by the Department of Fish & Wildlife, “DNA evidence indicates the tule elk numbers could have been as low as a single pair or a small number (2-4)...” For the most part, they couldn’t be found.

Then in 1874 a game warden happened across a small number of breeding elk hiding in the marshes on a large cattle ranch owned by cattle baron Henry Miller. Forced to abandon their natural habitat, the elk survived among the marshes’ tules, hence the name tule elk. The Miller ranch ordered workers to protect the elk at all costs.

On the ranch, despite marginal forage, the tule elk slowly grew in numbers. In an attempt to start a new herd, two dozen elk were taken from the ranch to Sequoia National Park. But most either died or escaped over the next 21 years. Back at the ranch, tule elk were doing quite well, too well in fact. By 1914 the number of elk reportedly grew into the hundreds.

The Miller property began to suffer damage to fences, crops and irrigation systems due to the sheer number of tule elk. At up to $10,000 annually, the cost became too high. Miller requested authorities move the bulk of them to other areas. Over time, dozens of parks and reserves throughout the state received hundreds of elk in hopes of generating new herds. But once again, by 1920 few survived.


Then in 1921 a chain of events began to unfold starting with 10 tule elk being transported to Yosemite National Park. Initially they struggled, their numbers dropped to 8, and it seemed another failure was at hand. On top of that, around 1930 the Park Service decided they would no longer accept non-native animals in any of their parks. But a glimmer of hope appeared when the herd suddenly grew to 28. At that point, a new chapter began when those elk caught the eye of a wealthy Owens Valley rancher, G. Walter Dow.

G. Walter Dow –
 Promoted the Owens Valley
 and was a dedicated philanthropist. 
Walter Dow bought a ranch in Lone Pine in 1918. Frustrated with going to Bishop for lumber he started the Lone Lumber Company, then Dow Motors, the Dow Villa Hotel in Lone Pine, the Winneduma Hotel in Independence, and Glacier Lodge near Big Pine. Mr. Dow was kind and very generous with his time and money, and helped promote the Owens Valley. Tule elk could be a possible tourist draw, so with a twinkle in his eye he arranged and financed the relocation of the entire Yosemite Valley tule elk herd to the Owens Valley. But first...the paperwork.

Dow secured land in the Owens Valley from the City of Los Angeles, and worked with George Wright of the Wildlife Division of the National Park Service who signed-off on a highly detailed plan for their removal and transportation. According to the June 16, 1933 edition of the Inyo Independent, Col. C.R. Thompson of Yosemite wrote to Horace Albright, the director of the National Park Service in Washington D.C. and said, “If you approve, and if you follow the steps proposed by Mr. Wright, I will arrange with Mr. Dow for transportation of the animals before autumn.” Mr. Albright gave his approval.

On the weekend of October 7, 1933, Dow and some volunteers traveled to Yosemite National Park to begin the meticulous process of transportation laid out by the Park Service. After all 28 tule elk were rounded up, they began to crate each individual animal. Each crate had to be unique, constructed specifically to accommodate the size and shape of each individual bull, cow, and yearling. Horns were removed so the males would fit into the crates. The following Monday, three trucks loaded with elk left Yosemite for a long over-night trip to the Owens Valley. Everything went according to plan except one unknown: would they survive the hundreds of miles of rough roads?

 The next morning, according to the Inyo Independent the entire herd made it, “…without a single
loss or injury to a single animal.” Unfortunately, one elk who suffered an injury in Yosemite prior to the move later died. The new arrivals were held for ten days and then released near the Owens River below Tinnemaha Reservoir. Hundreds of people came to see what the local newspaper called, “one of the interesting animals.” Four months later Dow brought in 28 more tule elk, this time from the Central Valley. Fifty-five tule elk now called Owens Valley their home.

By 1943, the number of tule elk quadrupled and they seemed destine to recover. Walter Dow was inspired. The Los Angeles Times quoted Dow as saying, “I hope they do well, and that in time we shall find the venture so successful that we can follow with antelope and probably some buffalo.”

But farmers and ranchers were not so enthusiastic. As with the Miller Ranch decades earlier, the elk had a tendency to damage fences on their way to alfalfa fields and pasture lands, as well as compete with cattle for forage. Nearly 200 tule elk now roamed the Valley floor. To address ranchers’ concerns, the Departments of Fish & Game (DFG) chose to reduce their numbers. After decades of effort to bring back viable herds of the endangered tule elk, permits were issued for a limited hunt-the first time tule elk were allowed to be taken since 1873.

The first hunt in 1943 eliminated 43 tule elk; a second in 1949 eliminated 107. By 1952 the elk rebounded to 229. At this time a DFG management plan determined that between 125 and 275 elk was a viable number. But this “viable number” was hotly debated by biologists who felt the management plan was not based on adequate studies. Numerous hunts took place over the following years.

Those hunts were counter to what Walter Dow envisioned. Encouraged by a growing number advocates, Dow helped form The Committee for the Preservation of the tule elk. The goal was to create a tule elk sanctuary where over 2,000 elk would roam within a 240 square mile refuge stretching from Tinnemaha Reservoir to Owens Lake. A Southern California newspaper quoted Dow, a promoter of the Valley in general, as saying, “We could secure a great Owens Valley Reserve to save the elk, to benefit the Owens Valley and all of California, and to take its place among the great natural reserves of the nation.”

To that end, a member of the House of Representative carried the torch to congress in 1969. Congressman George E. Brown Jr. proposed H.R. 14603 authorizing a feasibility study for the establishment of a national wildlife refuge for the endangered tule elk. But the forces of opposition proved too much and the refuge never came to be. Los Angeles opposed it, and Inyo County’s political and business leaders perceived it as a negative impact on the local economy. G. Walter Dow thought otherwise. Endless newspaper articles chronicled the battles, but of course, as always, that is another story.
Tule elk can be seen along
Highway 395 between
Big Pine & Independence in
alfalfa fields to the west.     

  Copyright © 2015 Ted Williams. All Rights Reserved

Images courtesy of County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum
1st Tule Elk image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Shravans14 

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