Bringing Back the Tule Elk

Tule Elk

On the broad, flat plains at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, a small herd of tule elk makes their home. Pronounced “too-lee,” tule elk are a subspecies of elk native to California. Once nearly extinct, a portion of their replenished population now lives at the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve in Buttonwillow.

As the dominant species in the San Joaquin Valley, tule elk roamed the land where the native Southern Valley Yokuts had settled. The lower Kings, Kaweah, Kern and Tule rivers fed the Tulare, Buena Vista and Kern lakes, creating a rich and fertile area connected by marshy sloughs. The Yokuts people lived in a large village called Tulamniu on Buena Vista Lake’s northwest shore. When the lake was fed by heavy rain, it covered up to 150 square miles—making the area ideal for these grazing herbivores. 

Tule Landmark
Tulamniu Indian Site in Taft, CA
California Historical Landmark #374, placed 1950

Of America’s three subspecies of elk, the tule elk is the smallest. Males typically stand five feet tall and weigh approximately 500 pounds—with females about 2/3 of that size. Two other subspecies—Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk—are much larger, with Roosevelt elk sometimes reaching 1,000 pounds. The tule elk has a light, short coat and large teeth. Most now live in herds of around 40-60 elk, but at the height of their population, herds could number in the thousands.

Naturalists estimate that half a million elk roamed California before 1849. The tule elk population began to decline when Europeans came to California in the 1700s. Over-hunting and imported livestock and grasses so reduced herds that by 1873 the tule elk was virtually extinct. The State Legislature passed a law outlawing elk hunting that same year, but most thought it was too late. 

Henry Miller
Henry Miller, ca. 1875

Cattle baron Henry Miller and his partner Charles Lux drained and transformed the marshy central valley into drier and more profitable grazing land. Miller’s tip led a game warden to find the sole remaining pair of tule elks near Buena Vista Lake in 1874. Miller then created a 600-acre elk preserve on his land, but it was overrun with elk by 1914. The need to preserve a larger area of land for the elk resulted in the State Park Commission creating the 953-acre Tupman Zoological Reserve in 1932. In 1954 California State Parks took over managing the reserve, making such improvements as new water sources to ensure a healthy herd.

Tule elk can be seen today at the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve. Male elks box with their forelegs and trumpet their mating calls during summer; in winter, they lose their large antlers only to regrow them next season. The summer mating season is the best viewing season, but fall and spring provide more temperate weather and plenty of chances to see the elk in their habitat. In spring, you might even catch a glimpse of a brand-new calf.

Cow and Bull
Mature and yearling bull elk

Preservation efforts and careful management have revitalized the tule elk population in California. For more information about tule elk and their habitat, visit Tule Elk State Natural Reserve.