DEADHORSE FLAT RESERVOIR, Calif. — Eight elk bolted from their grassy resting place and streaked for cover of the forest, a recently born calf keeping pace, a young bull hesitating an instant before disappearing.
Tracks and scat showed that they slowed to a trot after nearly a mile before vanishing for good into the spring-green foliage of the Modoc Plateau.
"They're pretty incredible animals. They're programmed to survive," said Paul Bailey, a retired U.S. Forest Service forester active with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "They need water, forage, cover and solitude; they get it all out here."
An estimated 8 million to 10 million elk roamed America before white settlers arrived, including about half a million in California until gold-seekers nearly wiped them out.
"We shot 'em and ate 'em," said Jon Fischer, the state Department of Fish and Game's elk program coordinator.
Now the elk are making a comeback across the West, expanding both their numbers and range.
That means more hunting and recreation opportunities, but also potential conflicts with landowners who may one day find themselves dealing with herds that can number in the hundreds and even thousands in wintering areas like Yellowstone National Park.
Unlike curious deer or showy pronghorn antelope, the skittish Rocky Mountain elk would just as soon keep their infiltration of far northeastern California a secret. But the growing population there has given California another distinction:
"There are only four species of elk in the United States, and we've got three of them," Fischer said. It's the only state able to make that claim.
There's little to stop elk from expanding their range south through the Sierra Nevada, into areas they've never been known to inhabit.
"They're so adaptable, that's a real possibility," said Tom Toman, the elk foundation's conservation director. "They just like to wander and if there's habitat, they'll go."
Individual elk have already been seen as far south as Placerville, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Radio-tracking devices attached to California elk have found that some travel hundreds of miles, often making round trips.
California is home to perhaps 10,000 elk, counting all three subspecies of the large game animal usually associated with states like Colorado, Wyoming and Montana a thousand miles east.
The state's population of Rocky Mountain elk is relatively small so far, with perhaps 500 to 700. Some migrated south from Oregon, others from elk reintroduced into the Pit River area near the site of the current Shasta Lake reservoir about 90 years ago.
Tule elk, native only to California, were reduced by some accounts to as few as two animals by the 1870s, nearly following Eastern elk and the southwest Merriams or Desert elk into extinction.
The Tule elk, named after a type of wetlands reed, numbered just 28 by 1885, and there still were fewer than 500 in three herds by 1971. The population has since grown to more than 3,600 animals in 22 herds scattered through the Central Valley, Owens Valley and along the coast south of San Francisco.
In the Klamath Mountains near the Oregon border, California hosts the southernmost population of Roosevelt elk a century after the subspecies was killed off in the area. More than 4,000 Roosevelt elk now roam the forests of northwest California, aided by an aggressive program to provide enough forage for the animals, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, the largest of the subspecies.
The animals thrived under older Pacific Northwest logging practices that periodically removed much of the forest cover, creating meadows, and encouraging new trees and brush with their tender growth, Toman said. But the Roosevelt elk herd had suffered with restrictions on clear-cutting and increased protections for the Northern spotted owl and its old-growth forests.
Cows that once calved each year now often produce offspring every other year to make up for a lack of nutrition.
To help compensate, the Forest Service is working with Toman's foundation, the California Indian Basketweavers Assn. and other groups to restore plants like deer brush, bitter cherry, manzanita and currant that can provide year-round forage. Methods include prescribed burns, thinning trees, crushing brush to encourage new growth, and restoring meadows and water sources.
In Modoc County, foundation money went to dig year-round watering holes and bury water tanks in the Devils Garden Plateau area to get the Rocky Mountain elk through the dry autumns.
"We've got good habitat, but the water's a little short," said Bailey, pointing out tracks, droppings and bedding sites that show that the artificial watering holes get steady use.
The fourth surviving U.S. elk species is the Manitoba elk, primarily found in North Dakota.