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State approves millions for local wildlife easements

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The California Wildlife Conservation Board is shelling out big bucks to give the local population of tule elk in SLO County room to roam.

The board approved a grant of more than $2.3 million to acquire conservation easements over an estimated 12,710 acres of wild oak-land and other wilderness in the Avenales Ranch area. The easements will preserve habitat linkages and corridors for the tule elk and other wildlife in between existing protected lands.

Conservation Board Chair John Donnelly said that creating such corridors allow species like the tule elk and other wildlife to safely travel to areas where they live, eat, and mate, and to keep human development from encroaching too heavily into those habitats.

"Once roads and development comes in, and you start to bifurcate those bigger spaces with roads and fences, it can impact the movement of the animal," Donnelly said.

The easements will be located across 21 parcels of land in Avenales Ranch, a rural area to the county's east that borders the Los Padres National Forrest. The Schoettler Family Partnership and the Avenales Land and Cattle Company own the lands where the easements will be located. The grant to obtain the easements was spearheaded by the California Rangeland Trust and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Donnelly said the easement agreements with the landowners had already been negotiated and agreed upon prior to the board approving the grants.

Over the last 20 years, scattered construction of small-scale residential home or vacation sites in the area, as well as conversion of some properties to vineyards, has threatened to break up some of the larger habitat areas and corridors for wildlife, according to a report on the project from the board's staff. According to the grant, residential subdivisions will be prohibited on the land included in the easements. Cattle ranching and grazing, along with other agricultural practices will still be allowed, but managed and monitored.

According to the board's report, tule elk were voluntarily released on the Avenales property in the 1980s. Today, the current population consists of about 80 elk. Up to four mature elk are taken each year by hunters who receive tags as part of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's private lands management program. Hunting on the property is limited to the program's participants and members of the Avenales Sportsman's Club.

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