This heritage species of elk, indigenous only to California, was thought be extinct by the 1860’s after a massive kill-off just prior and during California’s 1849 Gold Rush. Then in 1873, Cattle baron Henry Miller’s working vaqueros found a pair of Tule Elk in a marsh as they were clearing land for Miller’s cattle.
In 1923, as part of a unique conservation attempt to save these elk, a handful were released into Lake and Colusa Counties as the first free-roaming herd of elk. When Bill Van Pelt purchased his 590-acre parcel in 1997, he was greeted by a herd of Tule Elk on his first visit to the property. Bill vowed then he would create a safe haven for them, which he did. That haven is still part of the Cache Creek Vineyards’ property.
Bill and his family created ponds for the elk’s enjoyment, planted their favorite grasses so they would flourish, and protected the herd from poachers. Today Bill’s son Don, who manages the vineyards for the family, continues Bill’s legacy of maintaining a sanctuary for the Tule Elk.
Facts About Tule Elk
There are three species of elk that live in California—Roosevelt, Rocky Mountain, and Tule Elk. The Tule Elk are the smallest of all the elk species in North America, and are native to California.
The average adult male (bull) is 450-700 pounds, but can grow to over 800 pounds. The average adult female (cow) weighs between 375-425 pounds.
The male elk shed and grow a new set of antlers every year that can weigh up to 40 pounds. With each shedding and regrowth, the antlers increase slightly in size. The antlers are made out of bone, and as they grow in the spring, they are covered with a system of nourishing blood vessels that looks like velvet. Female elk do not have antlers.
Adult bulls attempt to join the cow herds in July. Males often engage in full-fledged, head-to-head combat with their antlers over who will remain with the cow herd. Eventually the master bull drives all other bulls from the herd, keeping all rivals away from his harem of up to 30 cows. Only about 10% of bulls will mate; the unsuccessful bulls remain bachelors. When the demands of herding, defending, fighting, breeding, and placating 30 cows eventually wear out the master bull, he too will be driven off and replaced by fresher, and often younger, bull.
Calves gestate for 250 days and are born in late spring, weighing 20 to 25 pounds. The cow leaves the herd to give birth and remains solitary until her calf becomes strong enough to run with the herd. Calves nurse for four or five months but start nibbling on grass when they are less than one month old.
The Tule Elk herd that lives in and around the Cache Creek Vineyards flourish thanks to the sanctuary conditions provided for them. The Van Pelt family hopes to provide this safe haven for the Tule Elk for generations to come.