What if Los Angeles’ largest native herbivore already went extinct and we had no idea?
What if native people could set the record straight?
Last year I was in the field researching California’s native Chumash culture and rock art through the help of a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant. Not far from Los Angeles, nestled high in the mountains within large boulders and surrounded by old oaks, I came upon a rock art site that left me with more questions than answers. Amid several images of humans, a different figure stood out, bigger than the others and with hooves and broad antlers. As I spoke with the Chumash people in the area, I learned that this was likely a centuries-old image of an elk. According to California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife though, elk never lived here.
Setting the Scene of the Past
Five hundred years ago, Los Angeles was a far different place than we know it today. It was already densely populated, but by numerous indigenous peoples. The Tongva, Chumash, Fernandeño, Tataviam, and Serrano called the Los Angeles area home for thousands of years, each having their own territories in what is today the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Imagine a Los Angeles without freeways or urban sprawl. The climate was wetter, the landscape was diverse and varied. Antelope were in the grasses, condors in the skies, grizzlies in the valleys, and possibly, elk on the plains.
Tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes) are Central and Southern California’s only native elk species. They are considered by some to be the most specialized elk species in North America, living in oak-grassland and chaparral landscapes, often within a few miles of an good water source. Their name comes from their preference for wetlands and the tule plants (a giant species of sedge) that grow there. Once numbering half a million to a million animals with migrations comparable to those of the wildebeest in the Serengeti, they were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. Legend has it there was only one pair by 1874.
The People Speak
According to Chumash oral tradition, the Chumash that lived in present day Malibu (Humaliwo in Chumash) had a great chief with the ability to transform into a tule elk. I didn’t know that part of their history when I first saw the painting, but it is likely the pictograph represents the chief as a tule elk. For them to have this tradition, the Chumash were likely both familiar and interacting with these animals.
In the early 20th century, John P. Harrington, a famous linguist and ethnographer for the Smithsonian, recorded California Indian stories of elk in the mountains north of LA as well as Native Californian names and knowledge of tule elk. From his notes we know that the Tongva of Los Angles called tule elk paashukat, while the Chumash of Malibu and Ventura called tule elk ši’iw.
Going over early written sources of Los Angeles history, tule elk don’t come up often but they do show up. During the first European expedition into California, led by Gaspar de Portola in 1769, tule elk were seen as far south as Whittier Narrows in Los Angeles.
The Physical Evidence
A quick survey of archaeological sites in the Los Angeles area yielded tule elk bones as I expected.
From Six Flags Magic Mountain to the La Brea Tar Pits, tule elk bones and antlers show up, albeit scarcely. Due to this scarcity, scholars have often assumed that tule elk antlers and bones were traded in from the North. The bones aren’t decorated or polished though. They are broken and have butchering marks. This suggests they were likely local, and likely dinner, not a valued trade good.
Going over the data, I was surprised at how much still remains unknown. Only a small fraction of animal samples taken from archaeological deposits have been studied, leaving a great question as to what animals were here. Yet, in those few identified samples I went over, other surprises appear. Black bears (Ursus americanus) are also not considered native to the Los Angeles area, but their remains show up alongside tule elk. Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) also show up frequently, an animal not seen in LA for over a hundred years.
So with Native, European, and archaeological evidence on the books, why are tule elk not considered native to Los Angeles, Ventura, or the Santa Monica Mountains?
The State of the Elk
Research on populations and ranges of native Californian animals is a relatively recent phenomenon, but humans have been hunting, eating, favoring, and eradicating California’s wildlife for thousands of years. When California wildlife conservation first began, many early researchers felt that Native Americans didn’t impact the landscape enough to noticeably affect the animals being researched. Many scholars and politicians believed that California and the West represented a true wilderness in a pristine state—an idea many still have not let go of and still shows up in official paperwork, like the map to the right.
In truth, this was far from the case. California and its wilderness and wildlife had been affected by man for thousands of years through hunting and the wide-scale usage of fire, a fact we are just now beginning to appreciate. Jack M. Broughton, professor at the University of Utah, recently published genetic evidence suggesting tule elk were undergoing a genetic bottle-neck due to overhunting by 1600 AD, if not earlier. That is 169 years before the first European settlement in California, a time when Californian ecosystems are often assumed to have been “pristine.”
Still, Native Americans were likely not the downfall of tule elk in Los Angeles. In the past 200 years, California wildlife has faced unprecedented challenges as human populations surged, causing severe overhunting and dramatic landscape changes from ranching and later urbanization. Unfortunately for tule elk, by the time the time people began documenting Los Angeles wildlife, the habitat that tule elk need would have been largely gone, and with it the elk.
LA Elk’s Role, Past and Future
If we accept for a moment that tule elk once roamed the plains and hills of LA County, what does their absence now mean?
Recent studies carried out at Point Reyes National Seashore have shown that tule elk are particularly helpful in sustaining grasslands and reducing fuel accumulation, which means fires are less damaging to ecosystems. Wild fires around Los Angeles have increased due to human-caused ignitions in recent decades. In the Santa Monica Mountains this increased fire frequency endangers coastal sage communities, fostering a takeover by invasive grasses. The Springs Fire of 2013 was notably severe, decimating endangered Dudelya populations. Though human beings and recent drought conditions certainly play a key part in fire frequency, fuel accumulation in the absence of a large herbivore certainly affects fire severity.
LA’s Mountain Lions have also received a great deal of publicity lately. A population of elk would have supplemented these predators’ diets and eased some of the present resource pressures on these landlocked urban carnivores. Beyond that a great deal remains unknown, but it is fair to say the presence of a large herbivore in this ecosystem would cause a dramatic shift in the relative abundance of plants and animals throughout the area. This shift could well support native plant communities and foster animal diversity, and these possibilities make the idea of reintroducing elk a legitimate topic for debate.
All this said, it will still take additional physical evidence to prove whether or not tule elk were indeed a native and active component of the Los Angeles ecosystem. Stable Isotope Analysis of elk bones found in LA will allow us to fingerprint the soil chemistry that affected the plants the elk ate in life. From that we can approximate the origin of the animals—showing whether the bones are from native populations or were traded from the North.
These clues are not yet proof of tule elk ever being at home in large numbers in Los Angeles, but they do call us to be open to the possibility. Elk certainly made an impression on the Chumash people centuries ago, and have survived in Native memory and upon bare stone to this day. These hints and echoes drive us on, and remind us to delve deeper into what we think we know about the past.