Park biologist hints at good fences in field seminar on tule elk

09/07/2017

The National Park Service is exploring the idea of a fence to protect ranches near Drakes Beach from the encroachment of tule elk, according to wildlife biologist David Press, who, with Marin County Park naturalist Shannon Burke, led a walking seminar in the Point Reyes National Seashore last week. Addressing the more than 50 people who attended the tour, Mr. Press also said the deaths of 255 elk between 2012 and 2014 in the fenced enclosure at Tomales Point were not a result of dry ponds, but of a decline in calf survival and a mineral deficiency.

Gold Rush hunters nearly extirpated tule elk, with only 10 remaining in 1895. This remnant group provided the gene bank for today’s herds. In 1976, Congress directed federal agencies to make lands available for the reintroduction of the elk within their historical range and, two years later, 17 were released at Pierce Point. Within a decade, they’d grown to 93, and their numbers have continued to rise. In 2012, the park counted 540 elk but, bewilderingly, the population dropped to 285 in 2014. 

Some, including the Center for Biological Diversity, were concerned at the time that the elk could not find enough water in the 2,600-acre fenced enclosure at Tomales Point, as a record drought had hit the state. But Mr. Press said this was not the case. Though five ponds dried up in the enclosure, one continued to hold water. “To prove that point, we put wildlife cameras at some of the hidden seeps—there’s one right through the fog there—and it was clear that the elk knew exactly where that water was,” he said last Wednesday. He added, “We were not seeing the willow limbs stripped bare, which is what you’d expect if we had starving elk out here.”

Instead, there were other troubles, Mr. Press said. Tomales Point is lined with perilous cliffs and, more importantly, the landscape has a natural deficiency in copper and selenium, essential minerals that elk ingest through forage. During the drought, Mr. Press saw males with “corkscrew” antlers, a sign of those mineral deficiencies. The park is now working with veterinarians and wildlife biologists from the United States Geological Society to test whether salt licks can help fill in the nutritional gaps. 

In 1999, when the Tomales Point herd was expanding exponentially, the park moved 28 animals to Limantour Beach. Within a few years, the group split into three herds, one staying at Limantour and others settling near Drakes Beach and Coast Camp. But the herds began to encroach on nearby ranches, knocking over fences and grazing on forage ranchers relied on for their hard-earned organic designations. Some said the elk threatened their very viability. 

Though a lawsuit stalled the park’s efforts to develop current elk management strategies through a comprehensive ranch management plan, Mr. Press said he has tried two different solutions to protecting ranches in recent years. One is to just leave the elk alone; he said they seem to be deterred by ranching activities. But he’s also done “a fair amount of hazing—just walking them out,” he said. 

Elk require taller and sturdier fences—such as are found at Tomales Point—than those used for cattle. When asked if the park would consider putting an elk fence around the elk that graze around D Ranch, near Drakes Beach, Mr. Press said he thought doing so would be unwise. “Because you’re going to have the same issues of carrying capacity and population control,” he said. “But what might be something [to do] is just fence elk out of some areas—such as key pastures that you would want to preserve.”

“So maybe C Ranch would put up an elk fence around part of their pastures?” one woman asked.

“Yeah,” Mr. Press nodded.

Another hiker half-joked, “Yeah, they could fence in the cows.” The crowd chuckled. 

Mr. Press said the upcoming amendment to the seashore’s general management plan will address the herds that now encroach on ranches.  

After the walk, participants—bundled in down jackets against the cold wind, some escaping scorching heat over the hill—lunched below a crest where 28 elk cows and a rutting bull grazed on what little forage is left in August. As if on cue, the male bugled a warning to an interloping bull coming from the east. The challenger turned and ran away reluctantly, in fits and starts. The dominant bull then heard yet another challenger from the other side and turned to run after him. Back and forth he went for 30 minutes, as both interlopers wooed outlying cows. But that was as far as it went. Mr. Press, who has never witnessed elk copulating, suggested it may be a nocturnal behavior. 

 

Peggy Day lives in Point Reyes Station. She grew up next to a dairy farm and knew all of the cows by name. Recently, she helped the ranchers advocate for elk fences.