Meet the Tule Elk of the Alameda Creek Watershed

A casual visitor passing through the SFPUC-owned lands in the Sunol Valley on a quiet morning might see something unexpected on a hillside – animals that are clearly not the commonly seen black-tailed deer, nor are they cows.  They are tule (Two-lee) elk.

Tule elk are a subspecies of elk that are native to only California. Once abundant, they were hunted to near extinction after the Gold Rush. A small handful of elk were discovered on a private ranch in San Joaquin County in the mid 1870’s and protected by the rancher.

Tule Elk at Point Reyes. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

Flash forward, tule elk were reintroduced in Santa Clara County in 1978. The herd split up, and some of them took up residence near San Antonio Reservoir in the SFPUC’s Alameda Watershed lands in the East Bay.  The ancestors of that tule elk herd are still there today, and apparently making themselves available for photo ops by passers-by.

The reason they are able to stay here is because the SFPUC owns more than 30,000 acres of land in the Alameda Creek Watershed. These lands span Alameda and Santa Clara counties and include two drinking water reservoirs: San Antonio and Calaveras.

Tule elk near the San Antonio Reservoir.

Because it has been protected as a water source since the turn of the century, the Alameda Watershed provides safe habitat for a variety of wildlife. Grassland communities cover more than 50 percent of the watershed and woodlands cover about 22 percent. Other habitats include freshwater marshes, where streams discharge into reservoirs, and brush, scrub, and chaparral communities.

Ridgelands and open water make the area an attractive winter foraging and resting habitat for migrating and resident bird species, drawing birds of prey, waterfowl, and perching birds. In total, the watershed contains more than 17 different types of wildlife habitat that support a range of animals, including tule elk, black-tailed deer, coyote, mountain lions, bob cats, red-legged frogs, California tiger salamanders, Rainbow trout, the Western pond turtle, and three nesting pairs of bald eagles.

Alameda watershed. San Antonio Reservoir.

Another animal you will see often on this watershed is the cow. Cattle have grazed on the Alameda Creek Watershed for more than a century. Strict grazing management practices — from fencing creeks to keep out livestock to limiting the number of animals allowed in the watershed — have helped maintain high water quality and reduce the threat of wildfire. Grazing is considered an important tool in managing fire, because it reduces the amount of grass and other vegetation that might quickly ignite if left unmanaged during the area’s hot, dry summers.