Wild ride: 60 tule elk moved to the Car­rizo Plain — us­ing a net gun and a he­li­copter

The Tribune (SLO) - - Home & Garden - By Mon­ica Vaughan Mon­i­caVaughan:805-781-7930, @Mon­i­caLVaughan

Cal­i­for­nia wildlife man­agers re­cently un­der­took an ad­ven­tur­ous, high-fly­ing roundup, pluck­ing 60 tule elk from the San Luis Na­tional Wildlife Refuge near Merced and mov­ing them nearly 200 miles to the Car­rizo Plain Na­tional Mon­u­ment in San Luis Obispo County.

The mas­sive ef­fort re­quired dozens of peo­ple, a he­li­copter, a net gun and a live­stock trailer.

It’s part of the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife’s ef­forts to man­age the species that was once thought ex­tinct af­ter gold min­ers and set­tlers nearly wiped them out.

How the re­main­ing na­tive elk pop­u­la­tion grew from a lone herd on a pri­vate ranch near the Kern County town of But­ton­wil­low in 1874, to what is now 6,000 wild tule elk wan­der­ing the state in 22 herds is “one of the real, great wildlife suc­cess sto­ries in Amer­ica,” said Peter Tira, a pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer with Fish and Wildlife.

The cap­tured and re­lo­cated elk are de­scen­dants of the origi- nal herd that cat­tle­man Henry Miller cared for in the 1870s, Tira said.

The cows, calves and young bulls that now wan­der free with a wild herd across the grass­lands plain were moved there to re­duce the pop­u­la­tion of the fenced refuge and to pro­vide ge­netic diver­sity to the wild herd.

As of Mon­day, an­other group was in the process of be­ing moved from the Tule Elk Re­serve State Nat­u­ral Re­serve to the Owens Val­ley, Cache Creek in Lake County, and a pri­vate herd in San Joaquin County.

While tule elk are the small­est of wapiti in North Amer­ica, cows are up to 400 pounds. For those big mom­mas, get­ting to the free range was a bumpy ride.

“These are big, strong an­i­mals. It’s not work for the faint of heart,” Tira said. Still, he said, “An­i­mal safety is the No. 1 pri­or­ity.”

Wran­glers in a he­li­copter — let’s call them sky cow­boys — fired a net gun to trap each elk. Then, elk were ei­ther lifted by a rope hang­ing from the chop­per to a team of Fish and Wildlife staff and vol­un­teers — or the team came on four-wheel­ers to the an­i­mals to sub­due them, tie their legs and blind­fold them.

“You’ve got to tie them up or they’re lit­er­ally break-your­bones kick­ing you,” Harry Morse, a Fish and Wildlife in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer who par­tic­i­pated in the roundup, told to The Tri­bune.

Each elk was ex­am­ined by a team that in­cluded a vet­eri­nar­ian and a bi­ol­o­gist, who took the vi­tal signs, blood and hair sam­ples and in the case of six an­i­mals, ap­plied a track­ing de­vice to fol­low the move­ment of the herd, Morse said.

The elk were loaded through a chute into the dark truck trailer. Then they took a 2.5-hour drive to what’s left of the grass­lands that once stretched across the Cen­tral Val­ley.

Once the an­i­mals ar­rived, “We had to push some of them out of the back of the truck, lit­er­ally,” Morse said. “And some of them took off into the hills.”

Cour­tesy of Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife

Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife staff and vol­un­teers cap­tured and re­lo­cated tule elk from the San Luis Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in Merced County to free-roam­ing herds on the Car­rizo Plain Na­tional Mon­u­ment in San Luis Obispo County on Feb. 1.

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