SAN JOSE, Calif. - On the east side of Santa Clara County, Calif., up over the Diablo Range and not more than 30 miles from Silicon Valley, cattle rancher Keith Hurner bounced his red pickup truck down a dirt road recently and came upon a herd.
Not cows. Elk.
Hurner hears the elk bugling at night. He keeps pictures of them in his home on the ranch that has been in his family for 110 years.
"I think it's the greatest thing that's ever happened here," said Hurner, 70. "I really enjoy watching them."
It might surprise city dwellers to know there are at least 300 tule elk in Silicon Valley's rural Back 40, roaming across the wide-open ranch lands between Pacheco Pass, Livermore and Interstate 5. The herd started in 1978, when state Fish and Game wardens relocated 32 elk from the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra to the rolling foothills of Mount Hamilton as part of an attempt to bring the majestic species back from near extinction.
Before the Gold Rush, there were an estimated 500,000 tule elk in California, wandering like the bison herds of the Great Plains. But gold miners hunted them for meat and leather, farmers introduced non-native grasses and ranchers shot them for eating grass they wanted for cattle. By the 1870s, barely 20 survived. Today, after years of state and federal restoration efforts, there are 3,800 tule elk from Red Bluff to Bakersfield.
Conflicts between the animals and landowners remain a problem, but biologists call the tule elk comeback an amazing accomplishment.
"It is probably one of the biggest success stories in California for wildlife," said Joe Hobbs, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento.
Sea otters, condors and salmon command most of the public attention when it comes to recovery efforts for struggling California wildlife.
But the tule elk, a shaggy brown cousin of the Rocky Mountain elk that once sloshed among the tule reeds and bulrushes of San Francisco Bay's marshes, have rebounded so well they are not included on the endangered-species list and few environmental groups even pay attention to them. Their population is robust and growing, larger right now than at any time since Abraham Lincoln was president.
"Tule elk are such a unique species. They have gone from the brink of extinction to a healthy population," said Hobbs, who coordinates Fish and Game's elk program. "It means a lot to people, because it shows there are places that are still wild that aren't all paved over."
The elk in Santa Clara County roam up to five miles a day. They generally stay congregated into four separate groups. Because nearly all the land they live on is privately owned, and the eastern half of the county has just two paved roads, few Bay Area residents have ever seen them.
Tule elk herds that are easier to spot live on public land at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County and at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos.
There are two other species of elk in North America: Rocky Mountain elk and Roosevelt elk. Tule elk, found only in California, can weigh 500 pounds or more and run nearly as fast as racehorses. They eat grass, acorns and leaves. Although mountain lions or coyotes occasionally kill young elk, their predators are few.
Somewhat skittish, tule elk haven't wandered into cities or towns in Northern California, or caused much risk to motorists on highways. But they do eat grass that ranchers need to feed cattle. And they knock down fences.
"I love the elk. I think they are beautiful animals," said Garry Stoddard, a rancher who lives in the San Antonio Valley in eastern Santa Clara County. "But they cost me a lot of money. You can't keep your cows where you want because they knock the fences down. It is a never-ending problem. And I have to replace the feed they eat."
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Stoddard runs beef cattle on 3,000 acres adjacent to Keith Hurner, his brother-in-law.
Every year, Stoddard said, he must purchase more than $10,000 worth of hay to feed his cows in the late fall and winter. Before the state re-introduced the elk, his cattle had plenty to eat in pastures, he said.
It's illegal for anyone to shoot elk without a permit. The solution, Stoddard said, is for the state to pay him for his losses. Stoddard has even sent Fish and Game officials a bill for thousands of dollars, which they declined to pay.
"The thing that is most unfair to me and other property owners is that it is the most successful wildlife reintroduction program the state has ever done, and they are doing it on our backs," he said.
Among the elk's biggest defenders is Henry Coletto, 63, who retired recently after 40 years as Santa Clara County's Fish and Game warden.
In 1978, Coletto urged state Fish and Game officials to choose the Mount Hamilton area as one of California's relocation sites under a new statewide effort to restore elk. While other ranchers refused, tech pioneers Bill Hewlett and David Packard allowed Coletto and state biologists to release the first tule elk onto the 28,000-acre San Felipe Ranch, which the families jointly own, in the hills east of Morgan Hill.
With the OK secured, Fish and Game officials shot 32 elk with tranquilizer darts from helicopters near Lone Pine, not far from Mono Lake. They put them in horse trailers and drove them to the Bay Area.
Coletto has been a leading advocate for balancing wildlife and human needs, and for promoting fishing and hunting. He said the damage elk do is real, but overstated.
"Most of the fences in this country are falling down because they haven't been fixed in 70 years," he said, walking a meadow north of Henry Coe State Park near the elk herd. "Wild pigs break fences, deer break fences, cattle break fences. But everybody blames it on the elk."
"To see these animals in the oak woodlands, with the colors, the pines, it's picturesque," he said. "This was an animal that was native. But we destroyed it."
A compromise, Coletto said, lies in a voluntary state program where ranchers agree to maintain their lands in ways that help elk, like fixing fences so they can cross under without getting tangled. In exchange, Fish and Game officials give landowners hunting tags, allowing usually between two and six elk a year to be hunted on a large property. Because only 120 tule elk tags are issued each year in California, a tag to hunt a male tule elk can be resold for $10,000 or more, Coletto noted.
"You start off raising cattle, but these elk can raise you money, too," he said.
Only two of 10 large landowners in eastern Santa Clara County have joined the program. Many, like Stoddard, are suspicious of more government oversight of their land and they don't want to attract any more elk.
Meanwhile, private groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have helped assemble land deals, including joining the Nature Conservancy to purchase part of Hurner's family property behind Lick Observatory in San Antonio Valley this summer, as reserves for elk.
"They are a magnificent animal," said Bob Hammond, lands-program manager of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, in Mount Shasta City, Calif. "The ability to see them on the landscape and to know they are coming back, I think you can't put a price on that. It's just like wilderness, it is just good for the soul."