California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Distribution & Range

Previous distribution of Elk in California

Tule elk are endemic to California and the most specialized elk in North America, given that they live in open country under semi-desert conditions, whereas the species as a whole typically occupies temperate climates and utilizes heavy cover at least seasonally (McCullough, 1969). In its historic range, the tule elk once occupied much of the central state. Their range spanned east of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada west to the coast line and north from the headwaters of the Sacramento River south to the Tehachapi Mountains. The variation in climate and topography illustrate the great adaptability of the tule elk (Phillips, 1976). Accounts in journals and diaries of early explorers indicate that approximately 500,000 tule elk inhabited the State. Between 1800 and 1840 hide and tallow hunters took large numbers of elk. From 1840 to 1849 southern Sacramento began to see a reduction in elk numbers due to increasing settlement and the gold rush. Market hunters then further reduced elk numbers and by 1870 only a few elk remained in the Buena Vista Lake area. DNA evidence indicates the tule elk numbers could have been as low as a single pair or a small number (2-4) of closely related individuals. In 1873 a law was passed to fully protect tule elk, although at that time it was unclear if any even remained. A rancher named Henry Miller realized the importance of this animal and diligently protected the last remaining tule elk (McCullough 1969).


Current distribution of Elk in California

By the turn of the century, the population of elk on the Miller-Lux Ranch had expanded and was causing extensive damage to fences, crops, and irrigated pasture. Miller requested the elk be relocated in an effort to reduce his damages. Over the next few years, the U.S. Biological Survey attempted to relocate tule elk via the "rodeo technique" (ropes and horseback). This technique was not very productive. In fact, the majority of the elk were killed during capture attempts or during transport to the release sites. Only one relocation attempt was considered partially successful when 21 elk were relocated to the Sequoia National Park. However, they died out by 1926. By 1914 tule elk were causing $5,000-$10,000 damage per year on the Miller-Lux Ranch (McCullough 1969). At this time, the California Academy of Science took over the tule elk relocation effort. The Academy was much more successful in capturing tule elk because they baited elk into a corral trap instead of attempting to capture them from horseback. During the period from 1914 to 1934, the Academy relocated 235 tule elk to 22 different locations, including Cache Creek and the Owens Valley. As was the case with the earlier relocation attempts by the U.S. Biological Survey, the majority of the relocation projects were unsuccessful. Tule elk at Cache Creek were allowed to expand their range and, until the summer of 1986, did not cause significant damage to private property. At the Tupman Tule Elk Reserve, elk were confined to a 953-acre enclosure, no mechanisms for population control were used, and the herd expanded to a point where the habitat was essentially destroyed and artificial feeding was necessary. This situation was greatly improved as a result of reducing the population by moving tule elk to other sites. In addition, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has undertaken numerous habitat improvement projects. In an effort to reduce damage to the improved habitat, the Department of Fish and Game has held the herd size at 30-35 individuals by periodically relocating surplus elk (California Department of Fish and Game, 1994). Currently there are 21 herds of tule elk with numbers estimated at about 3,800 (Hobbs, 2007).