It is not often that we can thank cattle ranchers for the preservation of wild grazing species. But throughout history there are ranchers we tip our hats to for the conservation work they have done, helping protect wildlife and wild spaces. Tule elk, the smallest elk on the continent, is one such species that has not one but two cattle ranchers to thank for their continued existence.
It came down to one breeding pair of elk, discovered in the tule marshes of Buena Vista Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Huge herds once covered the California landscape, with numbers estimated to be over 500,000. But, like so many species, they suffered at the hands of the Europeans. The elk were hunted for food and hides by Americans arriving to the west coast, especially during the gold rush of 1849. By 1873, elk hunting was banned by State Legislature but it was too late. The damage was done and tule elk were thought to be extinct.
That is, until that tiny band with its single breeding pair was found in the tule marshes on the land of cattle baron Henry Miller in 1874 by a game warden named A. C. Tibbett. Miller told his ranch hands to keep the elk safe, and it is this action that is credited with sparing the species from disappearing altogether.
But the story doesn't end there. Though Miller's protection helped the species begin to recover, the protection ended with Miller's death.
When Miller died, the ranch was subdivided and hunting resumed. With this, along with habitat loss and poaching, the elk population dropped again to just 28 individuals by 1895. Over the years, attempts were made to transplant the elk but nothing seemed to work. Finally in 1933, Walter Dow, a rancher in Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, brought a group of tule elk to his ranch. And finally, they began to thrive again.
As numbers rebounded, hunting was allowed to keep the Owens Valley tule elk numbers to under 500. Sadly, that isn't exactly a high number of individuals for an entire species. California's Department of Fish and Game established three permanent tule elk herds in the state, and by 1969 there were tule elk in Owens Valley, Tupman State Reserve, and Cache Creek.
Meanwhile, an activist by the name of Beula Edmiston headed up a group that lobbied for more than a decade to ban the hunting of the elk until their numbers reached more than 2,000 head. By 1976, US Congress agreed and federal lands were to be made available for preserving tule elk, including the San Luis Wildlife Refuge, Concord Naval Weapons Station, Mount Hamilton, Lake Pillsbury, Jawbone Canyon, Point Reyes National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, and Camp Roberts.
Today, there are 22 populations of tule elk throughout California with numbers estimated at around 4,000 individuals. Now that is a story of determination and success!