California’s only endemic elk, Cervus candensis nannodes can be found at Point Reyes National Seashore and 21 other areas of California. This is remarkable for a species that was once thought to be extirpated.
Family structure for the tule elk, the smallest of all American elk, is based on the bull commanding a herd, known as a harem, of cows and calves. From July through September is the rutting season, when males are competing by rounding up large harems of females and calves.
In the early morning hours it is easy to hear their bugling calls through the fog on the Point Reyes grasslands.
Point Reyes is located 30 miles north of San Francisco, a coastal wilderness park of 100 square miles. It is my favorite place to hike in the Bay Area, and is the only U.S. National Park that has tule elk.
The best place to view the elk is at Pierce Point Ranch, and after many, many years of hiking this picturesque area, I have found early mornings are best for finding the elk. As it is a stunning place, I will post more on Monday, featuring other wildlife we have enjoyed there.
Photos here are from two weeks ago. We were rewarded with incredible views of bull, cow, and calf groups.
We had been watching and photographing for about a half hour, when the additional excitement of four angry bulls converged in front of us. An elk showdown.
There was a lot of bugling, pacing, trotting, and flared nostrils; but no sparring.
Bugling starts out as a bellow and escalates into a squealing whistle. It is the bull attracting cows as well as advertising dominance to other bulls.
Once numbering 500,000 in California, the species declined drastically due to cattle ranching and hunting. The species population had reduced to 29 individuals by 1860.
They were thought to be extirpated when a rancher, Henry Miller, found a herd on his ranch in 1874. Mr. Miller protected them and is credited for the survival of the species.
Named for a sedge grass called tule, the elk have had a series of successful reintroduction programs, and number at about 4,200 today.
More about tule elk at Point Reyes here.
Usually quietly grazing, the elk are a joy to observe any time of year, but right now it is especially animated with bellowing and squealing, pacing and competing. And with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, it is a true splendor.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander