Visiting the Tule Elk Reserve

Every year around my birthday I decide to go on an excursion. It’s really my excuse to get my family to go somewhere that’s a bit off the beaten path. One year it was the Adamson House in Malibu¬† and another it was Kimberly Crest in Redlands. This year, we went a bit further afield to Bakersfield and the nearby Tule Elk Reserve.

Several months ago I was flipping through Westways when I came across a blurb about the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve. Located just off Highway 5 in Kern County it’s a state park dedicated to California’s only native elk species. It’s no secret I love state parks so I was eager to sop by and visit. But, as we all know, grabbing a view of native wildlife isn’t always an easy task and I really didn’t want to drive all that way to look at nothing. So I did a little research and learned the best way to see the elk would be on one of the reserve’s monthly auto safaris. Armed with that knowledge I grabbed my family and we headed out to view the elusive Tule Elk.

The Tule Elk State Natural Reserve is located in a barren corner of the San Joaquin Valley. Over 150 years ago the area was much different – it was a rich marshland teeming with wildlife. So much so that pioneers traveling over the Grapevine swore the valley floor was moving but it was just the vast amount of wildlife roaming the land. Tule grass, marshland and large lakes were the ideal environment for the elk and, at one time, over 500,000 roamed the valley.

But the the valley was becoming an agricultural hub and the growing metropolis to the south was in dire need of water and over time much of it was siphoned off creating the barren land we’re used to today. In fact, the very land that forms the reserve was once part of a large ranch belonging to Henry Miller. Often, land barons end up becoming villains in history but Miller was different. In 1873, the Tule Elk was thought to be extinct due to extensive settlement of their grazing land and, of course, hunting. Miller decided any remaining elk needed to be protected and he set aside 600 acres of open range for them. A year later a pair was discovered and moved to his preserve. From this grew the movement to save the Tule Ek and today approximately 5700 roam the state.

Today the reserve still maintains a base herd of 40 elk and i was really hoping to see at least one of them on my visit. Luckily, as soon as I parked I could see a small group of bachelor elk just beyond the fence-line. Yes! Mission accomplished. It was just about time for the tour to start so my family and I joined a small group on the viewing platform.

The friendly park ranger taught us all about the reserve and the vast efforts to save the Tule elk. Based at the nearby Fort Tejon State Park he came especially to lead the tour and his love of California wildlife was certainly infectious.

We made a brief stop at the nature center where we saw some artifacts up close (I even held that pair of antlers and it was heavy!) and then we were off to explore the reserve.

The auto tour was very similar to my experience at the National Bison Range although this one wasn’t self guided. Instead we followed the ranger’s vehicle and he would stop at points that offered prime viewing opportunities. Remember when I was hoping to see one elk? Well…I saw ALL of them.

Of course, without a telephoto lens, they look quite small but they were actually really close to us! In fact, the ranger told us the herd came closer to our group than any he had led before!

We could see the bull in the center guiding his group as they investigated just who we were. We could see a cute calf trotting alongside it’s mother and a group of timid bachelors obeying the bull’s commands. It was fascinating to watch this resilient group of animals interact in their native environment.

As wonderful as it was to see them I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness at their barren environment. Although the San Joaquin Valley is their native home it’s far removed from what it once was and I wish the elk could still enjoy the lush marshland of their ancestors.

To look on the bright side – they’re here. Tule Elk were once thought to be extinct and now there are almost 6,000 roaming the state. Despite it’s desolate appearance the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve is an important California resource. Thanks to the reserve our state’s only endemic elk have received a new lease on life and I hope their population continues to grow and thrive.

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