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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SAN LUIS NWRC: Tule Elk Relocated From San Luis NWR to Three Herds in California

Region 8, April 8, 2014
USFWS and CDFW personnel work to restrain a netted elk and prepare for transport to the onsite base camp.
USFWS and CDFW personnel work to restrain a netted elk and prepare for transport to the onsite base camp. - Photo Credit: n/a
The capture component was performed by a helicopter and net gun crew.
The capture component was performed by a helicopter and net gun crew. - Photo Credit: n/a
San Luis NWRC Pathways Student Sara Araiza readies a transported tule elk for off-loading and processing.
San Luis NWRC Pathways Student Sara Araiza readies a transported tule elk for off-loading and processing. - Photo Credit: n/a
A processed elk is carried to a corral where its blindfold and leg hobbles will be removed before it goes into a livestock trailer.
A processed elk is carried to a corral where its blindfold and leg hobbles will be removed before it goes into a livestock trailer. - Photo Credit: n/a
A San Luis NWR elk is released at the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve in San Luis Obispo County.
A San Luis NWR elk is released at the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve in San Luis Obispo County. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Madeline Yancey

On March 29 and 30, experienced staff from two agencies and dozens of volunteers including veterinarians, members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and local community members – more than 75 individuals in all – carried out the capture and relocation of 36 tule elk at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County, California.

The tule elk is a California endemic sub-species that was nearly extinct by the late 1800s because of hunting pressure, competition from domestic livestock for foraging habitat and loss of habitat to land use changes like agriculture and other human development. The tule elk herd at the San Luis NWR celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Through past capture operations like this one, the San Luis herd has contributed individuals to herds throughout the state, thereby helping the number of herds increase from three to twenty-two and the tule elk population grow to the current number of about 4,200 animals.

This operation was orchestrated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Service personnel including staff from the San Luis NWRC, Sacramento NWRC and Stone Lakes NWR contributed their time and effort to the project. The focus of the capture was young animals, as they are more resilient and better able to deal with the stress of relocation. Nineteen of the thirty-six animals were less than two years old and two-thirds of them were yearlings – youngsters born last spring. Slightly less than half of the captures were females. Fifteen of the elk, eleven of which were females, were relocated to the Wind Wolves Preserve, a Wildlands Conservancy site in Kern County. At 95,000 acres, Wind Wolves is the west coast’s largest non-profit nature preserve with the capacity to support a herd of 2,000 to 2,500 tule elk according to CDFW. Twelve elk, six males and six females, were taken to the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve, a reserve administered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, adjacent to 250,000 acres of valley grassland and other habitats of the Carrizo Plain National Monument in eastern San Luis Obispo County. Nine elk, all males, were sent to CDFW’s South Valley Ranch; a part of the 3,000-acre San Antonio Valley Ecological Reserve in the Diablo Coast Mountain Range.

Personnel involved were assigned to one of several different teams designed to carry out a specific aspect of the operation. The shoot-capture component was performed by a helicopter and net gun crew from Leading Edge Aviation of Clarkston, Washington. Leading Edge specializes in wildlife capture and survey work for federal and state agencies and others. Their crew consisted of the pilot, a net gunner and three “wranglers.” The pilot handled the helicopter like a cowboy on a cutting horse; targeting the desired elk, cutting and isolating it from the herd, then bringing the aircraft into position so the net gunner could shoot the net onto the animal, effectively immobilizing it long enough for the wranglers to hit the ground, wrestle the animal down, and hobble it. Capture efforts typically took less than 15 minutes per elk.

The next team on the scene was one of five “transport” teams. Their job was to blindfold their charge, disentangle it from the capture net, get it onto a liter and load it onto a waiting all-terrain vehicle for transport back to “base camp.” At base camp, one of four “processing” teams – each with a veterinarian – took over. As quickly as possible, so as to minimize stress to the elk, the processing teams determined each animal’s weight, measurements, age, gender, drew blood samples and collected hair and tissue samples. These actions helped the veterinarians determine whether the animals were healthy enough to be relocated. Each elk received a dose of antibiotics and preventative treatment for external parasites like fleas and ticks. In addition, fourteen cows were radio-collared so their movements can be tracked. All the animals received ear tags for future identification. Practically before they knew it, each elk was in a holding pen being relieved of its hobbles and blindfold then carefully loaded into a waiting livestock trailer for transport to its new home. Travel teams, each consisting of a crew in a pick-up truck towing the livestock trailer and additional personnel in a “chase” vehicle safely transported the elk to their new homes at one of three locations throughout California; the farthest of which was about a five hour journey from the San Luis NWR.

Safety for people and animals is always a priority in wildlife operations such as this one, so it was no surprise the project was completed without incident or injury to either the elk or human participants. The animals were captured, processed and loaded for transport in about 12 hours despite the fact that a tule elk can top out at between 400 and 600 pounds and no tranquilizers were used to immobilize them.

These capture/relocation projects provide significant support for the healthy maintenance and growth of California’s native elk herds.

Madeline Yancey is a Park Ranger (Visitor Services) at the San Luis NWR Complex in Los Banos, California.

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov