ContentsPutah and Cache: Upper Cache Creek

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Return of the Tule Elk

Peter B. Moyle

$266.25. This is the cost of a permit from the Department of Fish and Game to shoot a tule elk, assuming you won the annual lottery for the permit in 2001. Tule elk are the brown, shaggy-maned, big-antlered deer you often see along Highway 20 in the hills between Willams and Clear Lake, or, if you are lucky, on a hike down one of the Cache Creek Wilderness trails. There are perhaps 500 of these animals roaming a large area in Colusa, Lake, and Mendocino counties. The presence of tule elk in this area is the result of their enormous desirability to hunters. Tule elk, although small by elk standards (a bull is only 400-500 pounds) are especially desirable because they are found only in California. Any hunter wanting to complete his life list of big game kills needs a tule elk and is willing to pay for the privilege, not only in hunting fees but in support of organizations that buy land and protect habitat. The 12,800 acre Payne Ranch, just off Highway 20, was acquired by the state with strong support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Tule elk once roamed the Central Valley and surrounding hills in huge herds. Because they were easy targets, tasted good, and interfered with Progress by eating crops and competing with cows, they were nearly extinct by the 1860s. Fortunately, Henry Miller, one of California's biggest land barons, had a conscience of sorts. In 1874, when the last few elk holed up in the last remaining remnant of habitat on the Miller and Lux ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, he protected them, even when they damaged his crops. In 1914, a few elk were transplanted to the Monterey Bay area but by 1940 locals regarded them mainly as a nuisance, especially when bulls started challenging golfers on the fairways (elk have low handicaps). 21 of these elk were moved to the Cache Creek area, starting the Cache Creek tule elk herd. Transplants also occurred elsewhere in the state and the estimated total number of "wild" tule elk is 2700, more or less, in 22 populations.

It is likely that tule elk were originally common in the Coast Range. In some areas, such as Bear Valley, they may have played the 'keystone' role that cattle seem to play today: browsing down the grass and letting the wild flowers bloom. Perhaps some day we can find this out. Imagine Bear Valley peppered with grazing elk rather than cattle. In late summer, the high-pitched, squeaky bugling of rutting bulls echoes from the hills. In spring, females drop their calves among the owl clover and lupine. Now add a few grizzly bears to keep the elk population under control...

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