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Tule Elk Make Remarkable Comeback In South San Jose Hills

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) -- Wildlife is making an amazing comeback in the hills above Silicon Valley, but hardly anyone is noticing.

Hardly anyone that is, except for Roger Castillo, a lifelong San Jose resident and volunteer conservationist.

"30 yards to the right.  Right there with his butt in the air," said Castillo, pointing out an tule elk about two miles away on a ridgetop in south San Jose.

Castillo and his dog Zoe often hike the hills looking for elk, which haven't been seen in the Coyote Valley foothills in large numbers for maybe hundreds of years.

"They managed to find their own way back into San Jose," Castillo said excitedly.

For the last few months, Castillo has been video documenting herds of elk, sometimes just a stones throw away from freeway exits, golf courses and housing developments.

He's recorded groups of females and pairs of young bucks dueling for dominance all within view if you know where to look.
"We have this tunnel vision, from point A to point B.  All you have to do is sometimes look up. You might see something," Castillo explained.

Castillo has a knack for wildlife discovery. In 2005, he discovered the fossil remains of a mammoth on the Guadalupe River.

He's been commended by Congress for that discovery and for protecting the habitat of salmon. He's now trying to protect the tule elk, which were all but wiped out in the Santa Clara Valley starting in the 1700's.

Now they face a new potential threat: poachers.

So far, Castillo has found two carcasses of adult males.

"People are poaching them, possibly, and removing their heads to take their antlers," said Castillo. "That's one of the main key things we're finding."

Castillo has begun tracking the tule elk at night in case poachers do show up. He says local rangers and game wardens are stretched too thin to do it all.

"People just need to know to leave them alone," said Castillo. "Keep your distance and respect animals and they'll be fine."

Castillo says the return of elk proves that decades of conservation practices and habitat restoration is working.

"They find the habitat on their own. That's the miracle," said Castillo.

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