Scientists urge proactive path forward for elk

Susan Adler
Protesters in orange jumpsuits and fake antlers staged a protest on Tomales Point last weekend, decrying the management of the fenced tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore. The rally was organized by Jack Gescheidt, a San Geronimo Valley photographer and activist who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic against the National Park Service last month.   

A group of scientists has expressed concern about the management of tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore, where pressure is mounting as the National Park Service approaches the deadline for a decision on the general management plan amendment. 

In a letter sent last week, five scientists urged the park to update its 1998 tule elk management plan immediately, calling the passive management of the fenced elk at Tomales Point a “misapplication of the concept of natural regulation.” 

“You have animals artificially confined behind a fence,” said David Graber, one of the signatories and the park service’s former chief scientist for the Pacific West region. “That’s not natural regulation.”

The letter comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed on behalf of animal rights activists alleging that the park allowed the elk to die preventable deaths from starvation and thirst. The park declined to comment on the scientists’ letter because of this ongoing litigation. 

Last year, the Tomales Point elk population fell by a third, from about 450 to about 300, a die-off the park attributed to malnutrition from poor forage. Under the park’s passive management of the herd, the fenced population has grown significantly during wet years and shrunk during dry years, when vegetation is limited. 

H. Woody Elliott, a retired environmental scientist with California State Parks who signed the letter, said the “boom and bust” cycle should not be so stark, especially when compared to the relative stability of the free-ranging Limantour and Drakes Beach herds. He said the differences in population change between the fenced and unfenced herds served as a kind of “de facto experiment” that showed how detrimental the fence was to the long-term health of the herd. 

“It just hit me over the head: It’s the fence,” he said. 

In 2016, a lawsuit prompted the park service to amend the seashore’s general management plan and study the environmental impacts of various options for management of the pastoral zone. The park’s preferred alternative, which would extend ranching leases to 20 years and keep one of the free-ranging herds in check by lethal removal, has faced intense opposition from animal rights activists and Indigenous groups. In advance of the July 14 deadline for a record of decision on the amendment, pressures on the park have heightened. 

The Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin sent an open letter to the park service, calling on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to reject the amendment and give them more say over the park’s cultural resources, including the elk. A week later, the park service was sued by the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic over its management of the elk, with the plaintiffs alleging that the park was neglecting its conservational duties.  

Last week, Diana Oppenheim, founder of the nonprofit ForELK, delivered a petition with about 100,000 signatures to Sec. Haaland’s office in Washington, D.C., asking her to reject the amendment in favor of a more elk-friendly alternative. A media-friendly rally at the elk fence brought dozens out to Tomales Point last weekend; some protestors dressed in orange jumpsuits and fake antlers and carried a sign proclaiming the point a “Tule Elk Penitentiary.” And the Pacific Sun-North Bay Bohemian reported that the park had euthanized healthy elk to test for Johne’s disease, a lethal gastrointestinal infection, which can be tested by non-lethal means. 

“There’s a lot of momentum building,” Ms. Oppenheim said. “I have no idea if it’s going to be enough to catch the secretary’s attention.” 

Last week’s letter from the five scientists—including University of California, Berkeley wildlife management experts Reginald Barrett and Dale McCullough, and United States Geological Survey wildlife scientist Judd Howell—objects to the park’s management strategy not on ethical, cultural or historical grounds. Rather, it contends that the strategy is outdated and untenable from a wildlife management perspective, and it lays out some possible solutions. 

“I don't want to give people the impression there’s a silver bullet, because there is none,” Mr. Elliot said. “Biology is complicated.” 

The most contested option the letter raised is the removal of the elk fence, a step advocated by elk activists like Ms. Oppenheim. Once the elk population booms, it crashes severely because the fenced animals are unable to disperse and find better grazing areas. If the fence were to be removed, the elk would spread out and likely experience less dramatic die-offs. 

Another option explored in the letter would give the fenced elk additional free range while still largely protecting ranching operations: the construction of a new fence that would allow herds to range along the Tomales Bay side of the peninsula all the way to Limantour Beach. The fence would exclude all but the easternmost ranching areas, but create a movement corridor between the Tomales Point herd and the Limantour herd. 

Connecting the fenced herd with other populations of elk would also benefit genetic diversity, an important factor that is lost in the enclosure. The experts recommend the park immediately bring in some elk from other herds in the state to expand the gene pool. 

“I’m not seeing any signs of inbreeding,” said Mr. Graber, who sat on a management committee for the elk in the 1990s, but “caution would suggest that new genes should be introduced.”

The park has argued that bringing in new animals could introduce chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurologic disease affecting elk and deer, although the disease has never been detected in California’s elk herds. Mr. Graber called it a “terrible disease,” but said the risk of it being introduced from another California herd is very low.

The letter also recommended that the park take immediate steps to establish new thresholds for elk numbers beyond the management limits described in 1998. Mr. Graber suspected the park has not updated these thresholds—which could trigger the need for lethal removal, supplemental forage, or other new management strategies—out of a reluctance to admit the situation is untenable. “Thresholds are politically troublesome,” he said. “It means you have to act.” 

The scientists outlined a few options for management that would minimize harm. While the fenced population is low, contraception could be a viable short-term option, they suggested. The park used the immuno-contraceptive porcine zona pellucida on female elk from 1997 to 2001 as part of a study conducted by University of California, Davis researcher Susan Shideler, who found PZP to be safe and effective. 

Yet in last year’s general management plan amendment, the park concluded that lethal shooting was preferable; contraceptives for female elk require two doses and have short-term efficacy, and the animals can be inaccessible due to topography, the park found. 

Still, Mr. Elliott said contraception has a place. “It was really hard, and very expensive, but it worked,” he said.

The scientists also wrote that the park’s decision to provide supplemental water to the tule elk last month did not address the limited availability of food for the animals. They pointed out that die-offs have resulted from malnutrition, not dehydration, and said providing forage could be a short-term solution. Ultimately, feeding the animals could lead to unnatural population growth and habituation to feeding by humans; it would also likely be met with societal disapproval, the experts wrote. 

Mr. Elliott suspects the tule elk will continue to die off in the short term no matter what the park does, because of the severity of the drought. Most importantly, he said, the park needs to adapt its management strategies to new situations more swiftly. He doesn’t envy park decision-makers. 

“They’ve got their work cut out for them,” he said. “And the charismatic megafauna are putting it right in their face.”