It was dark in Bear Valley Springs at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18. The full moon was not yet high in the sky. Elk were in the roadway in the vicinity of Bear Valley Road and Arroyo Court and a Bear Valley Police vehicle was parked with its caution lights blinking to draw attention to the risk.
Then a driver hit one of the elk within seconds of passing the police vehicle, according to Megan Clark, Bear Valley Springs Community Services District communications specialist. In a Facebook post, she said officers had been present in the vicinity of the herd with amber lights the past two nights to alert drivers to the hazard.
The driver was OK, Clark wrote, but the elk will likely need to be euthanized. At the time the police department was waiting for response from the California Department Fish and Wildlife. Clark implored residents to slow down and use caution when driving.
“Our officers are doing their best to protect both the elk and drivers, but they cannot be everywhere,” she wrote. “Pay attention to your surroundings. Know that the deer and elk are in rut right now, and they are too busy fighting and pursuing potential partners to pay attention. They are not using caution, so you need to pay enough attention for everyone.”
For months, members of the newly formed Bear Valley Springs Wildlife Coalition have worked to increase community awareness of wildlife issues. The fledgling organization has just been accepted as an official Bear Valley Springs club. The latest vehicle versus elk incident prompted Anjali Tierra, one of the organizers, to put together what she called a peaceful public awareness gathering with signs in BVS Friday evening, Nov. 19.
She said two other people joined her — but the positive impact of the small turnout was amplified about 45 minutes into the event when the BVS VIPS (Volunteers in Police Service) showed up and stayed, using police lights to slow people down and help raise awareness. Tierra was further surprised when a community member stopped by with a $500 check — the first group’s first donation.
One BVS resident who joined Tierra at the Friday night event said she learned that the injured elk sustained a compound fracture of his rear leg.
“He ran off, to certainly suffer and die,” said Laurie Rude-Betts.
“What will it take to get drivers to realize that the speed limit is far too fast to be traveling in our community after dark with all of the wildlife crossing our roads at any time? Even our daylight speeds are too great. Elk and deer can jump onto the roads at any time,” she added.
In June, Tierra and other BVS residents — including Annette Scherr, Erin Larkin-Rohrer, Kathy Knew, Anya Norton and Peter DeArmond — organized a community meeting. Rocco Spinelli, BVS ranger, provided statistics about wildlife deaths and the group conducted brainstorming sessions for the next steps.
The previous month, Spinelli had reported the death of another elk on Facebook.
“We had an elk hit this morning near Cub Lake,” he wrote. “We’ve had 30 dead deer in a 15-month timeline.”
The Bear Valley police department investigated the incident in May as a hit-and-run.
The downed elk was found May 10, approximately 50 yards off the roadway on Bear Valley Road near the community baseball fields. The animal had injuries consistent with being struck by a vehicle, a press release noted. An officer searched the area for evidence and located skid marks on the roadway, which may have been the point of impact. Investigation of the case is ongoing.
The BVCSD regularly publishes wildlife-related advisories on its Facebook page. One published at least twice in October advised motorists to slow down and keep a sharp eye out, especially in the early morning and evening hours.
“The likelihood of striking a deer more than doubles from October through December,” Clark wrote on the district’s Facebook page. In further comment, she said that this is likely true for elk as well because, like mule deer, October through December is their breeding season.
“The animals are much more active and bold as they search for potential mates,” she noted.
Last October was also disastrous for the deer population in BVS.
“Rangers and BVPD have dealt with a high influx of hurt or dead deer this past week,” Spinelli posted on Facebook. “I have dealt with six dead in four days. Please drive with respect through these streets. We live together with all these wild animals and speeders show a lack of respect for the wildlife when they're speeding down the road.”
BVS resident Peter DeArmond is known as “the elk guy” because of his passion for creating videos of the magnificent in elk that frequent the community. In response to the death of the animal, he created a video with a special message for his neighbors.
“There is so much wildlife in Bear Valley Springs that we almost take it for granted, and we shouldn’t,” DeArmond said. Acknowledging that some accidents are simply unpreventable, he said that the new organization has a simple message: Pay attention and slow down.
“There are ways we can prevent wildlife from being killed,” he said. “You live in a wildlife area. It’s a blessing for us, but it can be a curse for the animals.”
On a website featuring his elk videos, DeArmond explains that the local elk are not native to California.
The elk in BVS (also found in Stallion Springs, other areas of the Cummings Valley and the nearby Tejon Ranch) are a subspecies of elk known as Rocky Mountain Elk, he writes. When fully mature, a bull will weigh about 700 pounds, stand five feet tall at the shoulder and measure eight feet from nose to tail. The mature cow weighs about 500 pounds and stands about four-and-a-half feet at the shoulder.
DeArmond said the animals found locally are descendants of elk brought to the Ellsworth Ranch (now known as Stallion Springs) by Rex Ellsworth in 1967 (by permit from the Department of Fish and Game, as it was known at the time). Ellsworth had 290 elk shipped from Yellowstone National Park with the intention of starting a game farm, but only 277 survived the trip and up to 125 of those died.
Eventually, elk began escaping the ranch, making their way to the nearby Tejon Ranch and Fickert Ranch (now Bear Valley Springs). DeArmond’s website notes that the latest figures provided by DFW in 2018 indicated that 300 Rocky Mountain elk survive in the Tehachapi Mountains. Another larger group of imported elk remain in Shasta County. In 1979 California prohibited future importing of elk for game farms and also outlawed removal or sale of their antlers for commercial purposes.
DeArmond’s videos and more information about elk can be found online at http://elkmovies.com/.
For information about the BVS Wildlife Coalition call 650-533-1115 or 661-972-2011.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.