Beyond Sacramento

You asked, we answered: What happened to the elk in Elk Grove?

This story is part of our “Beyond Sacramento” series, a reader-driven initiative that lets you ask questions about our region that The Sacramento Bee explores and answers. Scroll to the form at the bottom of this article to submit your question.

The question, submitted by David Silva, is: “Were there ever any real elks in elk grove?”

Before Europeans arrived in what is now California, more than 500,000 Tule elk roamed from present-day Redding to Santa Barbara.

By 1870, that population had dipped below 10. By some accounts, there were only two or three.

What – or who – pushed the elk to the brink of extinction?

For one, Gold Rush-era settlers over-hunted Tule elk (pronounced TOO-lee) for hide and meat, said Joe Hobbs, former statewide Elk and Pronghorn Coordinator of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Farmers diverted rivers and drained wetlands for more productive fields, shrinking the species’ grazing range. They planted invasive grasses to better feed Old World livestock, crowding out the plants Tule elk had fed on for millennia.

As a result, by the time Elk Grove was established in the mid-19th century about 10 miles southeast of Sacramento, Tule elk — the smallest and lightest-colored of the four North American elk species — were nearly gone from the region for good.

James Hall founded the Elk Grove Hotel and Stage Stop in 1850 for travelers between Sacramento and the Bay Area. These stage stops were usually 10 miles apart, and Hall’s stop had two levels: a restaurant and informal post office on the ground floor, and a dance hall on the second.

According to Elizabeth Pinkerton, an Elk Grove historian and former president of the Elk Grove Historical Society, Hall wasn’t original when naming his stage stop.

“He knew about a place called Elk Grove in Missouri,” she said. “He also knew about one in Wisconsin.”

Hall, his wife, Sarah, and their five children left England in 1840 for New York City and moved west. Different sources list them as living in Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin along the way.

Pinkerton said Hall would have been able to see Tule elk when he arrived in the Sacramento area in September 1850.

After the stage stop was created, a small community expanded around it and adopted the stop’s name: Elk Grove. Soon, another stage stop popped up a mile away, and in 1868 a completed Central Pacific Railroad depot attracted more business and residents to the rural, unsettled area.

“People came here because it had the small town feeling,” Pinkerton said of Elk Grove’s early days. According to census figures, Elk Grove had fewer than 5,000 residents as late as 1970. By 2000, the year Elk Grove became an incorporated city, that number was closer to 60,000. Current estimates put it around 173,000.

Human settlement — even in communities named after the Tule elk — has spelled doom for the species’ chance at free grazing. In other words, as Elk Grove grew, it became less and less likely that any elk could live there again.

Now, it’s too late.

In 1870, the species that had once grazed alongside the Sacramento River was believed to be extinct. Then, a handful were found on private property in Kern County. Several failed breeding programs, a few successful relocations, and one federal protective bill later, they’ve made a comeback.

Tule elk have flourished along California’s Coastal Range as far north as Mendocino County in a “variety of accommodations,” Hobbs, who grew up in Elk Grove, said. This includes Bureau of Land Management-controlled land, fenced herds in Point Reyes, federal military property, private estates and state wildlife areas in San Luis Obispo County.

“If there is enough open space, with less people and less conflicts, that’s where the Tule elk flourishes,” Hobbs said.

Such conditions don’t really exist in the Central Valley.

From Stockton to Bakersfield, millions of acres have been devoted to agriculture, housing development and transportation infrastructure. Even the Grasslands Ecological Area in Merced County, the best candidate for raising elk populations in the Valley, Hobbs said, is crisscrossed by highways.

But they will never again roam the Sacramento area like they did when James Hall arrived in 1850.

“I just don’t see a large enough contiguous block of habitat that would work,” Hobbs said. “Some places could handle a few animals, but it’s not worth the time and effort.”

Today, California is home to around 5,900 Tule elk, and each one is a descendant of the handful found in Kern County 149 years ago. Hobbs said the population will continue to increase, but only to a degree. The elk’s grazing range will never be what it was before settlement.

““They still have potential to grow and expand,” he said. But is there going to be half a million? No the Central Valley can’t sustain that.”

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Elliot Wailoo, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in prison systems, police, and education. He is originally from New Jersey.