The East Bay's tule elk herd draws visitors to the Sunol region throughout the year. But some environmentalists say the herd has recently been in decline. They suspect that illegal poaching of the large, majestic animals near Sunol and Ohlone Regional Wilderness parks has caused their numbers to drop to fewer than sixty. So it came as a big surprise when the California Department of Fish and Game recently allowed a legal hunt of the East Bay herd for the first time in more than a century.
John Krause, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist, said that the agency opened up the East Bay herd to hunting this year because the agency's surveys are different than those done by environmentalists. They show the herd is not getting smaller and that it remains substantial. But he also said that no elk was killed in the official hunt.
Still, some environmentalists believe Fish and Game acted hastily. "I think they have this philosophy of 'Let's provide maximum opportunity for hunters,'" said Jeff Miller, executive director of the Alameda Creek Alliance, who has been monitoring the Sunol tule elk herd for years. "The agency is primarily concerned with providing hunting and fishing opportunities."
A few years ago, Miller was instrumental in protecting the elk herd from a planned new rock quarry in Sunol. But he and other environmentalists didn't learn of the hunt until after it began. The department had quietly alerted experienced hunters that it was opening up the Sunol herd for hunting and would issue one hunting tag. That meant hunters would have to apply and then the department issued one license to a single hunter. Killing one elk out of a herd of about sixty may not sound bad, but the consequences could have been devastating.
The reason is that the hunting tag was for an adult male. And herds typically have very few adult males, because the dominant ones run them off. What's left is a single male with twenty to thirty females in a harem, meaning a herd of sixty males may only have two or three adult males. The hunt itself was only allowed on private property. Miller said he heard reports that private land owners in the Sunol area were offering up to $5,000 to hunt on their property.
Over the next several months, Miller and other environmentalists plan to carefully review Fish and Game's official reasons for allowing the hunt — once they become clearer. Miller said they then may either heavily lobby the agency not to allow hunting again next year — or attempt to convince the department to change its rules.