The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the University of California Davis are teaming up to conduct a multi-year study of the north state’s tule elk herds, and they are hoping that private landowners in western Colusa County are willing to help.
“We are still very interested in getting access to private property to perform this study. Most of the study areas in East Park and Bear Valley are entirely in private ownership. Without that partnership, this study wouldn’t be possible,” CDFW Wildlife Biologist Josh Bush said.
CDFW and UC Davis researchers plan to collect elk pellets and study DNA extracted from the pellet during a two-part study that was originally scheduled to begin in October, but was moved to January.
The practice of using DNA extracted from fecal pellets to estimate the size of wildlife populations is a relatively new one, and it will be the first study of its kind for free-ranging tule elk. Currently, CDFW uses aerial surveys to monitor the tule elk herd populations. Based on the most recent helicopter survey for the three management units in Colusa County, there are 107 elk in the East Park herd, 112 in the Cache Creek herd, and 151 in the Bear Valley herd. Each herd has been steadily expanding since 2006, and Bush said that the
The study will help CDFW staff determine the population, distribution, movement and habitat use of tule elk within the study area, and the results will guide conservation planning efforts, CDFW said in a press release.
“We hope to learn the tule elk population dynamic, areas they’re utilizing, including calving area, important corridors and habitat use, important conservation areas, as well as ways to increase public opportunities to observe or hunt tule elk, and reduce landowner conflict,” Bush said.
In first phase of the study, biologists will use helicopter net-gunning and ground-based tranquilizer darting to capture and place satellite collars on 56 tule elk in four different management areas, three of which include portions of Colusa County. Those collars will log the location of the elk every 13 hours, which will be stored in an online database. That data will then be used to select a location for the second phase of the study — a fecal DNA-based survey, set to take place next late next summer, which will help researchers estimate the number of individuals in the population and measure gene flow among herds.
CDFW and UC Davis personnel will collect the pellets on-site, and then send them to be analyzed at the Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. From the DNA profiles constructed there, researchers will be able to identify individual elk and determine their sex and familial relationships to other elk.
Landowners interested in assisting in the study by providing access to researchers should contact Josh Bush at (916) 374-9137 or Joshua.Bush@wildlife.ca.gov.
History of Tule Elk
Tule elk are a native subspecies of elk unique to California. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, they numbered more than half a million statewide. The population rapidly declined in the mid-1800s due to unregulated market hunting and habitat loss. Tule elk dropped to such low numbers that they were once thought to be extinct. In 1875, an estimated two to 10 tule elk were discovered on a ranch near Lake Buena Vista in Kern County. The ranch owner, Henry Miller, is credited with protecting the last remaining tule elk and allowing them to multiply on his property.
Tule elk have since been closely managed. Beginning in the early 1900s, they were captured and relocated to reestablish herds throughout their historical range in California.
Since 1975, CDFW has captured and relocated more than 1,500 elk and currently it is estimated that there are more than 5,100 tule elk distributed in 22 herds throughout California.
“There have been two areas where tule elk were re-introduced, and they have branched out from there. The first was Cache Creek 1922. It was the first attempt to introduce tule elk back into their native range. That herd slowly built up in population from there, and has expanded into Bear Valley area,” Bush said. “That has been a fairly recent expansion. First started hunting in Bear Valley Unit in 2012. There was also a herd introduced to Lake Pillsbury, and from that introduction, the elk established there and also traveled all the way to East Park and established a herd.”
CDFW has used aerial surveys to monitor the populations in each of the management units, which they then use to set hunting tag limits and establish their own management responsibilities. According to surveys dating back to 2006, populations have been expanding in the East Park and Cache Creek herds. The East Park herd was composed of 69 elk in 2006, a number that grew to 95 in 2008 and sat at 107 as of Feb. 2015. The Cache Creek herd grew from 91 elk in 2006 to 187 in 2008, and was back down to 112 in 2015. The Bear Valley herd is the largest in the area with 151 elk. Because it is a more recently established one, CDFW does not have the same rage of population data available for the Bear Valley herd.
Tag limits for hunters are adjusted annually based on population estimates, as a part of CDFW’s management of the herds.
This year, there were more tags available for both the East Park and Bear Valley herds, while the number of tags decreased for the Cache Creek management unit.
“We think the Cache Creek herd is down from 2008 because of redistribution of Elk from Rocky Fire and general movement of Elk. That’s just a theory,” Bush said.
While the number of tags issued for each management unit will continue to be adjusted annually, each of the herds have populations at or near where CDFW wants them in the future.
“All of those herds are very close to where we want them to be long term,” Bush said. “Tule elk are never going to reach historical distribution, and will never establish in the valley due to agriculture, but I can see them further expanding north and south along interior coastal range. We have heard reports of them even being north of Stony Reservoir in Butte County.”
Bush added that the CDFW’s latest population survey effort should give the department a better handle on the data, which would help them with population management through hunting. In addition to seeking help from landowners for the survey, CDFW is also looking to bring private property into their Shared Habitat Alliance for Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Program.
The goal of the program is to provide more hunting, fishing, and other recreational access on private lands in the state. Through the SHARE program, the state offers monetary incentives and liability protection to private landowners who allow wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities on their property. ■