The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed the capture of 36 tule elk from the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos, the departments announced Tuesday.
Once about 30 animals away from extinction, tule elk have seen a resurgence through efforts on the refuge. The weekend’s capture was the first of its kind since 2005.
“Seventy years ago, tule elk were on the brink of extinction,” senior environmental scientist Joe Hobbs said in a statement.
Fifteen bulls, 16 cows and five calves were captured using helicopters with net guns at the San Luis refuge, according to a news release. The animals were relocated to 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.
Measurements as well as hair, blood and other samples were taken to evaluate the health of the herd. Fourteen cows were fitted with radio collars to track their movements.
Hobbs said state Fish and Wildlife’s management protocols and efforts with other wildlife organizations have led to “healthy and thriving herds across the state.”
“It’s one of the greatest wildlife success stories of our time,” he said.
Tule elk is a subspecies found only in California. Bulls can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and cows weigh in at about 450 pounds.
Capturing and transporting tule elk is a huge endeavor but the effort is critical for their long-term survival, according to a state Fish and Wildlife release.
Refuge manager Kim Forrest said she is pleased to be able to help the animals prosper. “Tule elk are one of California’s unique wildlife treasures,” she said in the release.
Since 1975, state personnel have captured and relocated more than 1,500 tule elk using a variety of techniques, including tranquilizers, trapping, baiting and physical restraints.
The state’s tule elk population totaled three herds of about 500 animals in the 1970s. Today the population has grown to 22 herds of about 4,200 elk.
Earlier this year, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a Missoula, Mont.-based conservation organization, supplied a $37,000 grant to the refuge for the relocation, as well as upkeep of the refuge enclosure.
The capture effort included volunteers from federal and state agencies who provided time, expertise and other needed resources, the release stated.
Tule elk live in open country and prefer grassland and marsh habitats. The elk once occupied much of the Central Valley until habitat loss and hunting during the Gold Rush nearly drove them to extinction in the late 1800s.