Tule elk

Tule elk


Cervus canadensis nannodes

The tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes ) is a subspecies of elk found only in California, ranging from the grasslands and marshlands of the Central Valley to the grassy hills on the coast. The subspecies name derives from the tule, a species of sedge native to freshwater marshes on which the Tule elk feeds. When the Europeans first arrived, an estimated 500,000 tule elk roamed these regions, but by 1870 they were thought to be extirpated. However, in 1874–1875 a single breeding pair was discovered in the tule marshes of Buena Vista Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Conservation measures were taken to protect the species in the 1970s. Today, the wild population exceeds 4,000. Tule elk can reliably be found in Carrizo Plain National Monument, Point Reyes National Seashore, portions of the Owens Valley from Lone Pine to Bishop, on Coyote Ridge in Santa Clara Valley, San Jose, California and in Pacheco State Park and areas surrounding San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos, California.


Considered the smallest of the elk subspecies in North America, the tule elk were the dominant large ungulate in California prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The average weight of adult males is only 450 to 550 lb (200 to 250 kg) and females have an average of 375 to 425 lb (170 to 193 kg). Although tule elk have been reported as half the size of the Roosevelt elk (C. c. roosevelti ), and sometimes referred to as the dwarf elk, this moniker may be misleading as the smaller size of some tule elk may reflect poor nutrition of elk subsisting on marginal habitat such as the Owens River watershed. California Department of Fish and Wildlife records show recent bull elk on Grizzly Island in Suisun Bay weigh up to 900 pounds (410 kg). This is a similar size to Roosevelt elk bulls which weigh between 700 pounds (320 kg) and 1,100 pounds (500 kg). Wildlife biologist Dale McCullough described an elk transplanted from Buttonwillow in the San Joaquin Valley to a golf course in Monterey that grew to the size of a Rocky Mountain elk. Also hunter H. C. Banta described the tule elk in the 1850s as "I found no difference in size between these elk and the Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Colorado elk, and felt sure that the bulls would weight 700 to 800 pounds".

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The calves are similar to deer fawns, with brown coats and white spots.

Genetic studies based on mitochondrial and nuclear DNA confirm that Tule elk, Roosevelt elk and Rocky Mountain elk should be considered distinct subspecies. The 2010 nuclear DNA study found five alleles at one locus, indicating that there has either been a mutation at this locus subsequent to the single breeding pair reported by Henry Miller and nineteenth century game warden A. C. Tibbet, or there were three surviving tule elk at the genetic bottleneck.

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McCullough identified nineteenth century tule elk antler specimens collected in three separate locations north of the San Francisco Bay: Sonoma in Sonoma County, as well as San Geronimo and Tomales both in Marin County.

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By 1986 numbers had increased to over 2,000 individuals distributed among 22 populations throughout California, largely due to successful reintroduction programs. By 1998, California's tule elk population exceeded 3,200. In 2007, the statewide population was estimated at 3,800. A 2014 report placed the statewide population at 4,200 in 22 herds. As of 2019, the total Californian population was estimated to be 5,700.

Small numbers of tule elk in Point Reyes have tested positive for Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis or "MAP", a wasting disease known as Johne's Disease. The bacteria was apparently transmitted by dairy cattle or spraying of cattle manure on pasturelands. In 2016 more tule elk tested positive after being euthanized so that their gut tissue could be analyzed. Cattle transmitted the disease to the Tomales Point elk herd shortly after they were first established there in 1978.

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Habits and Lifestyle


Diet and Nutrition

Two male and eight female elk were translocated from Merced County, California to Tomales Point on Point Reyes National Seashore in March 1978. The elk showed signs of nutritional stress including copper deficiency and antler anomalies by summer 1979 and two elk died. One explanation was molybdenum which expresses as copper deficiency. A former molybdenum mine existed in that area of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Other possible explanations include failure to remove cattle until 1979 and the fact that 1977 and 1978 were drought years. Birth rates remained negligible until 1981, when they began reproducing at predicted maximum rates. Studies of fecal material documented that the tule elk preferred grasses and forbs with little use of shrubs such as willow. These results are consistent with findings on the Diablo Range, Santa Clara County elk herd where more than 50% of the tule elk diet were grasses.

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A 2007 study at the Tomales Point Elk Reserve showed that tule elk appear to play a critical role in preventing succession of open grasslands to less diverse, shrub-dominated ecosystems. Elk grazing had a positive impact on native grassland species abundance and diversity, and seemed to increase the richness and abundance of some exotic taxa while reducing Holcus lanatus — a highly invasive exotic grass which is a major problem in mesic perennial grasslands.

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1. Tule elk Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tule_elk
2. Tule elk on The IUCN Red List site - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/55997823/142396828

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