Home on the ranch

Local tribe receives large federal grant to restore land for nearby Tule elk herds

A recent wildlife grant will expand habitat for Tule elk in the Cache Creek area.

A recent wildlife grant will expand habitat for Tule elk in the Cache Creek area.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In a month or so, a strange deep bellow, punctuated with high-pitched warbles, will begin to echo through the hills that form the western boundary of the northern Sacramento Valley.

“It’s a loud, kind of whistling sound,” described Casey Stafford, trying to pinpoint the vocalizations of the Tule elk, which begin to “bugle” in the late summer at the beginning of the elk rutting season. “And if that doesn’t make your hair stand up,” he continued, “I don’t know what will.”

Stafford is the director of land management for the Cortina Ranch, a 7,000-acre parcel of rolling hills with oak and brush in Colusa County, owned and managed by the Cachil Dehe band of Wintun Indians, who also own the Colusa Casino Resort. In May, the tribe received a grant for $189,200 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Tribal Wildlife Grant Program to restore 3,000 of the ranch’s acres to encourage nearby herds of elk to establish residence there.

“There are at least three herds within 3 or 4 miles” of the ranch currently, Stafford estimated, but expansion of their range is limited by chamise, a native evergreen shrub that has grown excessively dense on the ranch. In 2012, a fire burned through the ranch, reducing the presence of the chamise and offering a window of time before the shrub regenerates to remove some of it entirely and replace it with native grasses and other more open vegetation that the elk prefer.

“Now that the fire’s gone through, it may open up the [elk’s] migration patterns,” Stafford said. “We’re just going to try to get them a new place to call home.”

Once the fall rains reduce the risk of fire, Stafford’s team will start by bulldozing through the chamise. “If we pull up the rootballs, then we kill it,” Stafford said hopefully. He plans to work with biologists to determine which native species to cultivate in place of the chamise that would best suit the elk and other native animal species.

The Tule (pronounced too-lee) elk, a subspecies of elk that is endemic to California, once roamed a large portion of the state, from the Klamath mountain range all the way down to the Tehachapi Mountains in Southern California, and from the coastline into the Sierra Nevada foothills to the east. Heavy hunting and widespread displacement from Gold Rush-era settlements reduced their numbers significantly. By 1870, just a few—possibly just one pair—were left alive, and a ranch in Southern California was established to protect the last of the once half-million-strong elk population.

The ranch’s elk population grew, and from 1914-34 officials relocated hundreds of the animals across the state—but most of the relocation projects failed, and the elk’s range today is still dramatically reduced.

But a population relocated to the Cache Creek area did not die off, and now several herds of Tule elk roam the hills there. Now, the state’s population is estimated to be roughly 4,200, with the Cache Creek herd numbering about 200, said Joe Hobbs, statewide elk and antelope coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The overall population of Tule elk is slowly increasing in most areas. [The] Cache Creek [herd] is stable and probably limited by the availability of quality habitat,” Hobbs explained. “Improving the available habitat”—which is the primary goal of the tribal wildlife grant—“has the direct potential to increase the number and distribution of elk in the area.”

The competitive annual grant, which has been funding projects since 2003, awarded $4.9 million in 2014 to tribes nationwide, with almost $1 million of it going to five tribes in California.

“Typically, we get between 30 and 40 proposals a year,” from the roughly 130 federally recognized tribes in the region that includes California, Nevada and the Klamath basin area of Oregon, said Damion Ciotti, a biologist and a coordinator for the Tribal Wildlife Grant Program. “We’re usually able to fund just 10 [percent] to 20 percent of them.”

The applicants are evaluated through a scoring process by about 20 reviewers, who choose the projects that will most directly benefit wildlife, Ciotti said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in return requires annual progress reports, and conducts site visits as well.

Previous grants have funded myriad projects including, locally, the Susanville Rancheria’s work to restore fishery habitat on Eagle Lake and Pine Creek, Ciotti said.

Stafford is thrilled that his project is moving forward, and he said he believes it will benefit both the elk and the tribe.

“The elk was culturally significant to the tribes back in the day,” Stafford said, citing meat, antlers and fur as important sources for sustenance and ceremony.

As part of the grant implementation, the ranch will establish a long-term conservation management plan “to ensure that realistic and attainable goals are strategized and, in turn, achieved,” in addition to inventorying native plants found on the ranch, and creating educational materials detailing the uses of the plants, according to the grant summary provided by Ciotti. The plant-use brochures, Stafford said, will be “used here in the community, for the kids to continue the legacy.”