By Nancy Rodriguez
Opening day of the spring turkey season was very different than my usual turkey hunt. Instead of sitting patiently waiting for a turkey to strut by, I was in the middle of an amazing elk capture/relocation. My husband, Joe and I were honored to be invited to participate at a Tule Elk capture in central California, by our friend Joe Hobbs. Joe Hobbs is a senior environmental scientist that works for California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He also happens to be the California elk coordinator.
California is home to three subspecies of elk: Roosevelt elk, Rocky Mountain Elk, and the very special Tule Elk. Tule Elk are only found in my home state of California. The Tule Elk in California were once close to extinction. In the mid 1870’s there were reports that fewer than 30 elk remained in a single herd near Bakersfield, Ca. A cattle rancher named Henry Miller preserved this last group of elk that he discovered on his ranch in 1874. Experts believe the elk were pushed to the brink of extinction from loss of habitat, market hunting, and displacement from cattle. Thanks to Henry Miller and others that followed suit by 1970’s the Tule Elk population had grown to around 500 animals. Over the years with improved management, the help of wildlife organizations and conservation agencies like RMEF, Tule Elk numbers have steadily increased. Today California has over 4000 Tule Elk in 22 distinct herds!
Joe and I arrived on Friday afternoon at the San Luis Wildlife Refuge for our mandatory safety meeting. We met with approximately 70 employees from California Department of Fish and Wildlife and US Fish & Wildlife services, along with veterinarians, andnthe helicopter capture crew. Joe Hobbs conducted the orientation meeting, assigning everyone a specific job. We all broke into groups to become familiar with our upcoming rolls. Joe and I were assigned to the trailer chutes. We rotated with another team manning the chute gates as the elk were herded into the trailers for transport. 6:30 am Saturday morning couldn’t come soon enough. We arrived at base camp full of adrenaline and excitement. The teams quickly dispersed into their designated areas. The teams consisted of: The helicopter crew, the ground transportation teams, the processing teams, the wranglers, and the relocation team. Each group showed amazing team work.
The first team up was the helicopter crew, Leading Edge Aviation. They are a team of four dedicated wildlife capturers. The pilot’s job is to bring the chopper down over an elk to net gun level. Then one of the gunners hangs out of the chopper, aims the net gun over an elk and fires the net for capture.
Once the elk is in the net, the chopper drops to a low hover, a team member jumps out and immediately blindfolds and hobbles the elk for transport. The pilot radios the closest ground team for pick up. These guys are fast! On arrival the ground teams quickly lift the netted elk onto litters. They safely transport the elk on the back of Gators or trailers to the processing station.
The elk are strapped to the litters for safe travel. The next team is the processing team. There were 5 tents set up to process the elk as quickly as possible. They consisted of Ca. Fish & Wildlife employees, US Fish & Wildlife, and veterinarians to collect samples and data on the elk. First the elk are weighed and then carried to a tent station.
There the team would draw blood, check general health, place ear tags, and radio collars for future research.
The entire time the elk’s temperature was monitored closely and cool water and ice packs were applied to maintain the animals temperature if necessary.
Once the research teams finished their jobs, the elk were carried to the corral to be persuaded into the trailers. The corral is what I called the “elk wrangling station”. This station consisted of a metal pipe corral about the size of a small garage with two chutes that led into the trailers. The pipe fencing was covered in black burlap, so the elk would stay calm.
The ground crew would carry the elk on the litter into the corral. They would safely tip the litter to lay the elk on the ground. The elk wranglers would then remove the hobbles and blindfolds as quickly as possible. Next they would use bucking boards to persuade the elk up the trailer chutes. Joe and I would nudge the elk up the chutes and close the gates behind them as fast as we could, as they entered the trailers.
On the second day, Joe and I we’re invited into the corral to help with “wrangling”. Joe removed the blindfolds and I helped out with the bucking boards. The final stage and the most amazing part of the capture was yet to come. Joe and I were able to go to the grand finale… the release! We had two trucks and blacked out trailers full of elk, followed by a safety vehicle.
After a 2 ½ hours drive, we arrived at the elk’s new home. We pulled into the wildlife area full of hope. As we opened the trailer doors and stepped back, each elk curiously stepped out of the trailer and safely trotted off into their new home. Watching them run off, I was completely speechless! We had just been a part of one amazing adventure.
We had helped with the California Tule Elk re-population, conservation, and management process. All in all, the teams safely captured and relocated 36 Tule Elk to three different locations in California. California is lucky to have Joe Hobbs as the elk coordinator. He ran a safe, seamless, and upbeat elk capture. With people like him, Fish and Wildlife agencies, and conservation groups like RMEF, we can keep supporting our once nearly extinct Tule Elk.
This experience was one we will never forget. Not only did we have a great time comingface to face with Tule Elk, but we met some amazing people!