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Roosevelt Elk Roam Free in Prairie Creek

04/22/2015 12:28PM ● By Jordan Venema

Verge of Distinction

May 2015
By Jordan Venema

If you've seen one big tree then you’ve seen them all, right? But if that were true, how do we explain the ever growing interest in the Sequoia Sempervirens, the coastal redwood? Th e wonder inspired by these trees is as old as the trees themselves, although public interest has grown, thanks to groups like the Save-the-Redwoods League and big-tree hunters who locate, measure and name the world’s largest trees.

Where giant trees grow, other giants follow – fauna and creatures. One such giant is the Roosevelt elk, the largest of the elk subspecies. Th is wild animal measures up to 10 feet in length and fi ve feet in height at the shoulder (to say nothing of antlers) and can reach 1,300 pounds. Jim Wheeler, a ranger interpreter for the National Park Service, regularly encounters these behemoths in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. “Mega fauna,” he calls them, “animals left over from the Ice Age. When you see a Roosevelt elk, you can imagine grizzly bears on the landscape.”

In 1898, American biologist C. Hart Merriam named the elk aft er not-yet-President Theodore Roosevelt for his conservationism. Th e name proved prophetic, since conservation efforts brought the elk back from the brink of extinction.

Today, Prairie Creek, one of four parks within the larger Redwood National and States Park, is known as much for its Roosevelt elk as for its coastal redwoods. In 1920, Prairie Creek was Save-the-Redwoods League’s first project to preserve the world’s largest trees, and indirectly, maybe even unintentionally, the world’s largest elk. “Actually,” says Wheeler, “the establishment of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park protected the last herd here in California.”

When the state conducted an official count of the elk in 1925, only 15 were counted. “They were on the verge of extinction,” says Wheeler, though perhaps “as many as 50 or 60 were wandering around.” Still, Wheeler continues, “what we do know is that all the Roosevelt elk are descended from that herd.”

Today there are about 5,000 Roosevelt elk, “and about 250 of those animals are associated with the parks here,” says Wheeler. Th e elk remain one of the park’s greatest attractions, though Prairie Creek’s coastal location give it a special allure.

Wheeler grew up an Air Force brat, and moved oft en until he planted roots in Prairie Creek. “I’m almost embarrassed to say, but in the park service I’m known as a homesteader.” Most employees move around to move up, “but I’ve been bucking the system my whole time here,” Wheeler says with a laugh. So what kept him here these past 28 years? “Well,” he says, “for one things my favorite color is green. And I love trees.”

But for Wheeler, Prairie Creek satisfied a deeper, more mysterious longing. “When I was a child, I used to have a recurring dream of a place along the coast where a forest went all the way down the beach,” recalls Wheeler. He used to think Big Sur was the forest in his dreams, “but when I moved up here in the 1980s I realized, no, this is actually the placed I had dreamed about as a kid.”

According to Wheeler, Prairie Creek is more lush than other parks, with deeper undergrowth, larger ferns and “the most complicated canopies of the parks.” Coastal winds occasionally shorten treetops, though the new growth is wilder.

Like other parks, Prairie Creek has its tallest trees, reaching well over 300 feet. Some groves, like Atlas and Titans’, remain undisclosed to the public, but Wheeler says they’re not always far off the beaten path. It’s a double-edged sword, he says. “When trees get a name, they become an object, almost like a trophy for people.” Th e name draws people to the parks, but the increased foot traffic also damages the root system. “Protecting the overall forest is more important than the individual trees,” he adds.

If anybody doubts that trophy hunting threatens these trees, they need only remember that hunters nearly brought Roosevelt elk to extinction. Hundreds of miles of trail throughout Prairie Creek safely off er park guests a close-up encounter with both of these preserved giants.

Beside the redwoods and elk, Prairie Creek protects a third treasure unique to the park – a 150-acre swath of grass and flower that is guarded by the surrounding forest. Elk Prairie is a natural grazing place for Roosevelt elk and a magnificent juxtaposition between the forest’s density and height. “Th e prairie is the opposite of the old grove forest,” he says. And this meadow, like the elk that graze upon it, “probably dates back to the last Ice Age.”

Like other parks, Prairie Creek offers the usual amenities: Campsites, trails, a visitor center. But not all parks off er trails that work like a time capsule, a means to witness the animals, trees and meadows born out of the last Ice Age. Imagine the sight, emerging from wild undergrowth, between columns of redwoods – the open field and a herd of grazing Roosevelt elk. These elk have grazed this grass for thousands of years, and they will graze for a thousand more. A sight worth preserving, and open to all guests of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Prairie Creek Redwood State Park
Visitor’s center: (707) 465- 7765