California Department of Fish and Wildlife

2014 San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Tule Elk Capture

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (SLNWR) in Los Banos is located east of Highway 5 in San Joaquin Valley. It encompasses over 26,800 acres of wetlands, riparian forests, and native grasslands and is host to significant populations of birds, mammals, amphibians, fish and insects.

The SLNWR has played a key role in the recovery of the tule elk, a non-migratory elk subspecies found only in California. Prior to the mid-1800s, an estimated 500,000 tule elk lived in California. Due to over-hunting and loss of natural habitat, they were driven nearly to extinction by the turn of the twentieth century - by some accounts, the population was reduced to as few as 5-20 individuals. In 1974 a herd of 18 animals was established in a large enclosure at the San Luis NWR and has since thrived.

Elk from this herd are periodically relocated to join other tule elk herds, or establish new ones, throughout California. Recently it has been difficult to find suitable areas that meet the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's (CDFW) relocation criteria to establish new herds of tule elk. The Department used this capture opportunity to augment existing herds both in numbers and in genetic material.

During this effort, a total of 15 bulls, 16 cows and five calves were captured with a helicopter using a net gun. Measurements, hair, blood, and other samples were taken to evaluate the health of the herd. Thirteen cows and one bull were also radio-collared to track their movements.

Captured elk were released at the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve in San Luis Obispo County, Wind Wolves Preserve in Kern County, and the San Antonio Valley Ecological Reserve in Santa Clara County.

Since 1975, CDFW personnel have safely captured and relocated more than 1,500 tule elk using a variety of capture techniques, including chemical immobilization, trapping and physical restraint methods. As a result, California's tule elk population has increased from three herds totaling 500 elk in the 1970s, to 22 herds with approximately 4,200 elk today.

Tule elk are native to California, live in open country and prefer grassland and marsh habitats.