Tule Elk: California’s Legacy of Wildness

Point Reyes National Seashore


Documentary Video Transcript: Tule Elk: California’s Legacy of Wildness

[outdoor sounds, such as the sound of a stream and birds singing and bees buzzing]


[Narrator] Every fall in the Bay Area, something special happens that very few people ever have the opportunity to experience. It's something completely natural and commonplace, yet it sounds like something from another world, or from another time. And, in a way, that's exactly what it is.

[music and a high-pitched "bugle" of a bull tule elk]

[music and a rumbling sound]

[music fades]

[Natalie Gates] The tule elk bulls have a seasonal reproductive season that is called the rut, in which they gather groups of females together. We call those groups harems. And one tule elk bull will defend that harem from other bulls, mainly for purposes of reproduction. They want to reproduce with any of the females that are in the harem as soon as they come in to season, or come in to estrous, we call it. They defend that harem by fighting off other bulls. By patrolling around, they advertise their presence and their state of health by urinating, thrashing the bushes, marking the vegetation and the ground in the areas where the harems are.


Tule elk are a symbol of what California used to be like. They are a symbol of the wildness of California. There are very few places left where you can see a good picture that wildness, and Point Reyes National Seashore is one of them. Just seeing tule elk in the large herds that we see up at Tomales Point is a little picture of what nature in California used to look like.


[Narrator] As it turns out, the tule elk herds at Point Reyes are only thirty years old. There are no records of the original tule elk population found there. What happen to those elk happened in a time before photography and before Californians cared about their native wildness.

[Natalie Gates] We think that there were a lot of tule elk in California before the arrival of Europeans. We think there were probably a hundred thousand, maybe more, tule elk in these very large herds throughout the central valley and up the coast. The European settlers that came out to California, especially around the time of the gold rush, in very large numbers, had a real need for protein, for tallow, and for hides, and the tule elk were a very good source of those resources. The Point Reyes tule elk were very heavily hunted because of their proximity to San Francisco, which was a really fast-growing city. And, so, over the course of a decade, they were basically decimated and extirpated from this area.


[Narrator] Wait a minute. If the tule elk were exterminated by hunters during California's gold rush, then how can they exist today? Well, it seems that one elk family had the best hiding place in the whole state.


[Natalie Gates] The last few tule elk were found in a drained swamp near Bakersfield. And it is possible that there were fewer than five tule elk there. And that is the source of today's population. In the 1970s, a state law was passed that protected tule elk. So, we have a guaranteed core population of tule elk in this state, which is a pretty remarkable thing.


[Narrator] In fact, the California State Assembly passed the tule elk protection bill in 1974, which allowed the elk population to grow unhindered by hunters and trappers. These elk herds grew up so quickly that new herds had to be established in other areas of the state to allow for the expansion.


[Natalie Gates] In 1978, the California Department of Fish and Game, along with the Department of Interior, decided that Point Reyes National Seashore would be a perfect place to reintroduce them. And, that year, ten tule elk—two bulls and eight cows—were released in a fenced area at the Tomales Point, what we call now the Tomales Point Elk Reserve. The Tomales Point Elk Reserve is a peninsula that is surrounded on three sides by ocean, and at its southern tip, has elk-proof fence. So, the elk are captive, but they're captive within a 2100-acre area.

[the sound of car tires rolling on asphalt and a car crossing a cattle guard]

[Natalie Gates] The Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve is a wilderness area. It is legislated wilderness and is managed as such. So, it is an ecosystem unto itself.


[Narrator] The wildlife biologists at Point Reyes take the Tomales Point ecosystem very seriously, because the elk herd depends on it for survival. The entire reserve acts like a giant laboratory experiment where scientists study the effects of reintroducing a native species to its long-forgotten native habitat.


[Natalie Gates] At Point Reyes, we monitor tule elk for a number of reasons, but mainly to determine what's going on with the population: whether it is growing, whether it's shrinking, what animals are dying from, how many babies they're having. And the best way that we found to do that is with radio telemetry, in which we place radio collars on animals and [beep] track them.

[beeping sound continues]

[Natalie Gates] Each radio collar has its individual frequency, so when researchers go out in the field to track the elk, they know exactly which elk they're looking for. We also do ground censuses, in which we count animals on the ground. We have in the past counted them from the air. And we do a lot of observations in the field.


[Narrator] The tule elk at Point Reyes represent only a small fraction of the total elk population in California. Other herds are being monitored, too. These studies by wildlife biologists, made possible by the protective measures passed by the California legislature, are helping to restore and preserve some of the precious California wildness that was lost so long ago. The future of native species, like the tule elk, and of native habitats, like Tomales Point, looks bright.


[Natalie Gates] We will continue to study the elk at, uh, Point Reyes...and...California tule elk will continue to thrive in the herds that they're in now.


[bull elk bugles]

[Natalie Gates] The fact that tule elk have been preserved in California and have grown from a number that was somewhere around five to somewhere around 4000 is evidence of the success of the tule elk protection program. And it shows us what a good job we can do when we put our minds to protecting a species. When we stop over-hunting. When we protect their habitat And when we put them in areas where they can thrive.


[Natalie Gates] To me, the lesson of the tule elk is one that we should pay very close attention to. It is a lesson of mistakes made, but the mistakes were addressed. And we made up for them. We made a commitment to save tule elk, to restore them. It is a very good lesson in how well we work when we're committed to restoring species.


[Narrator] The commitment of Californians to save the tule elk has been an extraordinary success. But this legacy is only one of many. There are other threatened species and endangered habitats around the world that need to be protected and restored for the benefit of present and future generations.

That's why this story does not end here, but continues on with you. It is up to you to continue the protection and restoration of native species and habitats, in California and beyond. These legacies remain in danger and they're worth fighting for.



Large herds of tule elk used to roam California’s Central Valley and coastal plains, but they were hunted to near-extinction in the mid-1800s. The dramatic recovery of the tule elk demonstrates the importance of laws that protect threatened species.


9 minutes, 50 seconds


Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center / Benjamin Bettenhausen

Date Created


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