In Point Reyes National Seashore, ranchers and elk are finding themselves at odds, embroiled in a dilemma that has plagued elk reserves and their neighbors for close to a century: free-ranging 700-pound elk, minus predators or restraint, can equal one very big, very hungry problem.
California’s tule elk have been the focal point of contention and controversy since their rescue from the brink of extinction in the 1870s. As their numbers rebounded, state and federal agencies have struggled to manage the growing herds. While officials and the public have applauded the resurgence of the magnificent animals, their populations have frequently been characterized by property destruction, resource depletion and disease.
Tule elk have occupied a 2,600-acre fenced enclosure on Tomales Point since their reintroduction in 1978. In 1998, 45 elk were individually airlifted by helicopter to a new habitat in the Limantour wilderness area. There, they are allowed to roam free from the Estero de Limantour to Bolinas. But since 2004, elk have been turning up in the pastoral zone, mixing with cows on the historic A, B, and C Ranches. There is now an established ranchland herd.
“The animals are bigger over there than they are on the point,” one of the park’s elk docents recently told the Light. “They are really taking to the land near Drake’s Estero. There are about 120 of them.” Are there any problems with the elk and the cows competing?
“Not at all,” the docent said, “it’s really great!”
But local ranchers, and historical record, tell a different story. Left to roam freely over pastureland, elk compete with cows for water and forage, damaging fences and equipment. Antlered males have injured farm animals, and calmer elk have even been observed standing in line with cows at cattle feeds.
The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association has expressed its frustration with elected officials, including Senator Barbara Boxer, over the seashore’s lack of action. In the absence of an immediate management strategy, they argue, a solution is becoming increasingly expensive.
Some ranchers are palpably frightened of speaking out as individuals, even as they fear that the elk invasion could spell their own demise.
For the first time, in a 1998 environmental assessment for the elk’s management, the seashore posed the elimination of the ranches on the peninsula as one way of handling a burgeoning population. It also mentioned a 1980 public law giving the Secretary of the Interior the right to terminate ranch leases for the sake of preserving “park resources.”
While they declined to comment on this story, some ranchers deferred to Marin County Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen, asking that he speak on their behalf.
“This is a longstanding issue,” Mr. Carlsen said. “The ranchers are trying to work in a collaborative way with the park to manage the elk on the pasturelands.” But, he added, their letters and efforts to work with the park had not been met with an adequate response.
“What has evolved is that they are trying to get more of a third party involved in discussions,” he said.
Back from the brink
In Point Reyes National Seashore, only one of the tule elk’s two major natural predators remain: man. For 10,000 years, native Miwoks hunted the elk for meat, tallow, antlers and hide. Living in more than 100 coastal villages along Point Reyes, they encouraged elk onto the open plains by burning grasslands to increase seed production and eliminate shrubs for better grazing.
Along with the elk’s other major predator, the grizzly bear, native inhabitants kept the population in balance. The open expanses of pre-settlement California provided a wide range for the animals, which swam across bays and rivers to reach better forage. Before the arrival of Europeans, the elk numbered about 500,000 statewide.
But Spanish settlers, and later other Europeans, nearly wiped them out, shooting the animals in droves for their meat and hides. Market hunters, operating without rules or regulations, and ranchers who were suffering damage to their grains, orchards and fences, winnowed down the population even further. The last elk was seen in Point Reyes around 1860, swimming across Tomales Bay before “disappearing into the Sonoma wilds,” according to historic records.
By 1870, tule elk teetered dangerously close to extinction, and many thought they were already gone. But a few were found in the San Joaquin Valley on the land of a wealthy rancher, who took an interest in the animals.
The rancher, Henry Miller, was the largest cattle producer in California and among the richest landowners in the country. In 1873 he helped push through legislation to make killing tule elk a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison.
A growing problem
Under the protection of Mr. Miller’s sheltered acres, the elk increased rapidly. But as early as 1904, they were starting to outgrow their home, and Mr. Miller soon shipped 21 animals to Sequoia National Park.
Other small groups began to be foisted on any land that would take them, but in every instance the elk roamed, preferring to find their own ideal pasture. By 1914, there were over 400 tule elk living in the wild in Kern County, to the south of Sequoia.
“The tule elk are not a containable animal,” Wally Macgregor of the Department of Fish and Game wrote in 1973. “Elk in general do not get along well with man.”
The problem was that by the turn of the last century, most of the elk’s native habitat had already been turned into farm and ranchland. Tule elk have a taste for green grass and tender vegetation; since they could easily leap over or trample fences, the wild herds began to wreak havoc in the gardens, farms and pastures of newly settled areas.
Crop damage became so severe in Kern County that the California Academy of Sciences was asked to supervise a plan to reduce the herd. In 1920, 146 elk were captured and shipped to 19 different counties. The herds, wherever they were placed, kept growing.
Tule elk advocates were desperate to find them new homes. In 1921, 13 animals were released in a 28-acre fenced paddock in Yosemite—well outside their natural range. Advocate M. Hall McAllister had spent years writing to park officials, imploring them to allow “these beautiful animals” to grace the park’s meadows. Yosemite Superintendent W.B. Lewis said he was in favor of anything that would “increase the variety of attractions to the visitor to the park,” but scientists were concerned over the elk’s non-native status. Mr. Lewis agreed to keep the elk fenced, as “a small exhibit herd.”
But the elk quickly destroyed the vegetation in their pasture, and began expanding rapidly. A female tule elk begins calving at age two, and usually produces one offspring a year for each year of her adult life—which, in cushy environs, can be up to 25 years. The herd was increasing by 25 to 50 percent a year.
“A difficult administrative situation is developing in Yosemite,” park naturalist Ansel F. Hall wrote in 1928. Prolific and ravenous, the population quickly filled every area they were moved into, decimating the local flora.
In 1933, the park gave up trying to manage an animal they could neither control nor cull, and moved the entire herd to the Owens Valley.
And there was trouble with other transplanted herds. In Monterey County in 1922, the entire elk herd from Del Monte Park was captured and moved to a more remote area. But the elk kept coming back. Meanwhile, back in Kern County, the herd of about 140 animals was doing so much damage that in 1934 a large tract of land was purchased by the state, fenced and named the Kern County Tule Elk Refuge.
But the herd soon overgrazed the area and eliminated most of the native vegetation. Malnutrition and disease became rampant, and the sick animals that had not already perished were destroyed to prevent the further spread of illness.
The few remaining elk were fed alfalfa pellets, but with the native plants eaten, and the original mesquite and willow eliminated by the damming of the Kern River, the area could only support 30 or 40 animals. These were maintained primarily as a park attraction, with excess animals regularly sent to the Owens Valley. Today, the Kern County reserve has only 18 individuals.
Meanwhile the Owens Valley was rapidly becoming a depository for elk that had outgrown their ranges across the state. Purchased by the City of Los Angeles as a water source, the valley was also home to ranches and farmers. (And in the 1940s was the setting of a Japanese internment camp.)
When they were first transplanted, the elk were content to roam over some 3,000 acres. But as their numbers increased in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they spread out. Preferring green forage, they began to eat local farmers’ hay and vegetable crops. They would often break fences to feed on cultivated fields, and they competed with livestock for winter browse.
As their numbers grew, a bitter conflict developed between agriculture and wildlife, and some ranchers demanded that the elk be removed from the valley. A compromise was reached when Fish and Game agreed to control the elks’ numbers. In 1943, after taking a herd census, the department allowed licensed hunters to cull 43 bulls.
Again the herd increased rapidly. In 1947 it was reduced once more, with hunters taking 107 animals. But damage to crops and pasture persisted, along with bitter controversy, until 1952, when a meeting was held between Fish and Game, ranchers and other interested parties.
The meeting ended with an agreement to keep the herd between 125 and 275 animals. Once it crossed the high mark, hunting tags would be issued. In 1955, 40 bulls and 104 cows were culled to maintain those numbers, and by 1959 it was time for another cull.
In 1961, Fish and Game was forced to adopt a formal management plan for the Owens Valley. The elk herds would be maintained, “primarily for aesthetic enjoyment,” and kept at about 100 animals for each of the three herds. They would not be allowed supplemental feed, and in place of their natural predators, modern hunters would keep the elk in line with the land’s natural carrying capacity.
Activists step in
Despite the success elk had in populating new areas, environmental activists were concerned that the species’ overall numbers remained low.
A concerned Los Angeles resident named Beula Edmiston made the preservation of tule elk her personal crusade. She created an anti-hunting group, and lobbied hard for the elk’s protection. Calling them “the monarch of the wild,” she believed the elk needed not only to multiply, but to be given unrestricted range.
“It is a sobering thought that at least four species of American elk are now extinct,” she wrote in 1966. “It should silence those who would ‘save the Tule Elk’ in a fenced enclosure like feedlot cattle.”
Either unconcerned or unaware of the decades of bitter controversy in the Owens Valley, she called the refuge “the only successful transfer of the Tule Elk ever accomplished.”
Ms. Edmiston opposed all population control measures. She called Fish and Game’s culling efforts “arbitrary,” heaped scorn on the local agriculture industry, and accused hunters of being “gunners eager for trophy.” She said that the “ghost herd” was seldom seen by local residents and was “few in number and fearful for survival.”
This came as news to the residents of the Owens Valley, who were desperately trying to find a compromise, as they felt themselves overrun. In 1970, an Interagency Committee on Owens Valley Land and Wildlife was formed, which included the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the California Division of Forestry, Inyo National Forest, the United States Bureau of Land Management, Inyo and Mono Counties and the University of California.
Elk expert Dale McCullough wrote of the committee: “[Its activities] dramatically illustrate how local city, county, state and federal agencies can work together toward a common goal.” Based on Mr. McCullough’s work, a plan was developed by which elk would be divided into separate herds throughout the valley.
But the very next year, thanks to the efforts of Ms. Edmiston and other champions of the cause, the California legislature passed the Behr Bill, prohibiting the hunting of tule elk until the statewide population reached 2,000, or no further unoccupied elk habitat could be found.
With no predators and plenty of feed, it was clear that Fish and Game needed to relocate a large number of animals in order to avoid a catastrophe. But there were not enough suitable places. So, in 1976, Congress enacted Public Law 94-389, requiring the Department of the Interior to make land available for the tule elk on military bases and in national parks.
Point Reyes National Seashore was on the list, and after a few years of resistance, the seashore conceded.
A new home
The first herd to occupy the fenced 2,600-acre Tomales Point paddock was small, with just two males and eight females. During their first years in the seashore, the population struggled to overcome what biologist and elk expert Dr. McCrea Cobb refers to as “inbreeding depression,” and their numbers were slow to climb. Then the appearance of incurable Johne’s Disease, which causes severe diarrhea in elk, deer and livestock and is fatal to animals under six months, made matters worse. The park discussed eliminating the herd.
Dr. Cobb, who studied the seashore’s elk from 2005 to 2008, said that after overcoming their genetic hurdle, and after a drought in the 1980s, the elk experienced what he described as “irruptive growth.”
“None of the existing predators appear capable of regulating an elk population,” he wrote in his dissertation at University of California, Berkeley. “Irruptive population growth patterns, observed at [Point Reyes] and typified by newly established ungulate populations that are free of predation pressure, can lead to adverse habitat and population-level effects.” Dr. Cobb identified three distinct herds, which he called Tomales Point, Limantour and D Ranch herds. He observed that the herd in the pastoral zone was definitely growing the fastest.
“The herd near the ranches grew 300 percent in five years,” he said. “The Limantour herd is growing much more slowly, and that is due to habitat. The elk far prefer the flat grasslands. Any expansion of that herd is likely to go onto the pastoral zone as well… I predicted irruptive, rapid growth.”
In his dissertation on the topic, published in 2010 and presented to the park, Dr. Cobb wrote that “future growth of the D Ranch and Limantour elk herds will likely concentrate on adjacent ranchlands, given [resource selection function] models results, and will likely result in future conflicts between [National Park Service] management, unless proactive actions are taken.”
However, he said park officials were wary of taking action based on his findings. “How do I say this? I think they acknowledged that the population would increase and that the results that I found were true,” Dr. Cobb said. “At the time they didn’t want to take proactive management actions based on my results. Exactly what they would do based on my findings was unclear.”
Aside from agricultural concerns, Dr. Cann of Fish and Game said that it was important to know the land’s carrying capacity. “You don’t want to have more animals than the land can support. There are places where we can only sustain so many elk.”
A 1998 seashore brochure described the elk at Tomales Point as living in “a virtual paradise,” and said the herd had surpassed 500 animals.
By contrast, Monterey County has 400 to 500 tule elk ranging on 165,000 acres of the Fort Hunter Liggett military base—more than 63 times the space given to the Tomales Point population. Even so, local agencies are trying to reduce the herd.
“We don’t want [the Monterey] population growing any bigger,” Dr. Cann said. “We’d actually like to start tapering it off.” His response to the size of the Tomales Point herd? “Wow.”
To control tule elk in Monterey, hunting tags are issued to the public by a lottery. Usually about 50 tags are issued for Fort Hunter Liggit. This year that number is 60.
“That is a fairly aggressive tag program,” Dr. Cann said. “The goal is to slowly start shrinking their numbers, otherwise there will be problems.”
Signs of trouble
Ranchers, scientists, citizens and government officials have been foreseeing the elk crisis in Point Reyes for the past 20 years. There were just 60 elk in 1986, but by 1992 that number had more than doubled, at an estimated 160 animals.
Seashore officials in the early 1990s wrote that “their numbers are soaring,” and a 1992 Environmental Assessment of the elk considered reintroducing grizzly bears into the seashore, though that option was dismissed as “unfeasible.” There was no mention of eliminating the ranches.
Ultimately the seashore concluded that culling was the only viable option. While elk elsewhere in the state were being shipped to other reserves when necessary, it was and continues to be forbidden to move elk from Point Reyes due to their exposure to Johne’s Disease. In 1992, ranger Bill Shook said the disease even made relocating the herd within the seashore impossible.
Furthermore, the 1992 Environmental Assessment said that if the elk were allowed to roam freely outside of the fenced reserve, “impacts to ranches will include forage competition, fence damage and crop depredation,” not to mention the spread of Johne’s, for which there is no reliable test.
But animal rights groups got wind of the proposed cull, and objected. Still, the 2,600-acre preserve had an estimated 140-animal carrying capacity, and something needed to be done.
“I don’t want the elk to eventually starve,” then superintendent John Sansing said at the time. The park hired sharp shooters to cull the elk for a time, but stopped due to public outcry.
In 1993, the lobby group begun by Ms. Edmiston stepped in and began supplying the seashore with information on experimental programs in wildlife contraception, and said their 50,000 members would pay for birth control. “[The tule elk] are an ideal population for contraception pilot study and future research,” the group wrote to Mr. Sansing.
The contraception program was tried briefly, but ultimately abandoned as expensive and unreliable.
In 1993, there were 221 elk in the park. By 1997, there were 465. In 1998, the seashore conducted another environmental assessment, after which it established a second elk colony in Limantour—despite earlier warnings about the spread of disease. Park scientist Dr. Sarah Allen said elk that wandered outside of their designated range—which did not include areas zoned pastoral or any lands west of Estero de Limantour —would be “retrieved or possibly killed.”
A 2001 article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Running Out of Room to Roam” stated that the exploding elk population was pushing the state’s limits. The seashore was similarly pressed. But the next year, Dr. Allen said that the Tomales herd was holding steady at 450 animals.
There are now an estimated 500 animals in the Tomales Point enclosure—the densest tule elk population anywhere in the state—and about 160 elk in the pastoral zone and Limantour wilderness area. Given greater range and better feed, some of it organic hay purchased for dairy cows, the ranchland herd is bigger and stronger than its fenced counterpart.
The seashore has helped some ranches repair fences, yet it has not taken action to address the problem in the long term. Though its 1992 and 1998 environmental assessments stated it would remove elk that had invaded pastureland, the seashore has failed to do so. Ranger Tim Bernot said elk would be removed from private lands outside the seashore, but not from ranches within the seashore.
In her response to a letter sent by the Point Reyes Ranchers Association, Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said the seashore would work with ranchers “whose pastures overlap with the area used by the elk.” Last year, seashore spokesperson John Dell’Osso told the Light that by working on solutions with individual ranchers rather than the ranchers as a group, the park would “try to avoid having to elicit a longer and more costly process.”
Among ranchers there is a growing sense of alarm. The 1998 elk management plan reads: “[strategies such as] terminating cattle leases may provide for a disease-free herd on the Seashore,” and goes on to say that ranch leases may be terminated at the discretion of the National Park Service. While the authors stated that the current plan did not seek to hasten the end of Point Reyes ranching, “if and when ranches close, fencing and other restrictions could be removed” to facilitate grazing.
Overwhelmingly, the park concluded that occasional culling of herds was the most feasible way to keep nature in balance, but intense public disapproval has left them in a tight corner.
A spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said that while “lethal methods are never effective in the long term, where lethal methods are insisted upon [to control population], poison and bow hunting should be prohibited, and professional culling by a sharp shooter is more humane.”
Ms. Muldoon declined to answer a series of specific questions regarding the elk, but sent a statement by email instead. “We’re proud of the record we’ve built over the past 50 years in working with park ranchers,” she wrote. “I’m convinced that, together, we can find the creative solutions to demonstrate that working landscapes and wildlife can successfully coexist.”
Mr. Dell’Osso said seashore administrators had met with ranchers as a group “many times,” but that the Federal Advisory Committee Act precluded federal agencies from setting policy with any one interest group “without open public involvement.”
In March, KWMR’s West Marin Report reported that Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey had written to Senator Dianne Feinstein, asking her to address the issue with the Interior Department.
Senator Feinstein wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on March 20, noting that one ranch had been required to purchase $16,000 worth of hay to replace the forage consumed by elk. She said Mr. Kinsey and the ranchers were requesting the removal of the elk from the pastoral zone.
Mr. Bernot, the ranger who monitors the elk on the ranches, insisted that there was no proof that the elk were eating the forage meant for cattle—despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary.
“We can’t be sure that they are eating the grass that the cattle would eat,” he said. “We would have to conduct a complicated scientific analysis to determine the factors of their diet. They might be eating plants in between the grass. That study would take a long time.”
Mr. Carlsen disagrees.
“This is a simple issue. Just put the elk back where you planned to keep them,” he said.