Seashore elk herds rose and fell with fences in 2014

03/19/2015

The fate of many tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore last year largely hinged on whether or not they were enclosed in a fence. The fenced herd at Tomales Point dropped by 20 percent during 2014, while the two free-ranging herds grew, according to seashore wildlife ecologist Dave Press.

The seashore attributes the success of the free-ranging herds to their ability to seek out forage and water at a time of drought.

The free-ranging herds, which got their start in the seashore in 1998 when the park established elk in the Limantour Wilderness, now total over 200 animals. The herd near Drakes Beach, which some ranchers have blamed for eating forage on their leased lands, a problem that in part spurred the ranch management plan underway, grew from 76 to 92 animals last year.

The other Limantour herd, which stretches from Home Ranch to Coast Camp, grew to 120 animals. (Their official 2013 count was 71, but Mr. Press said that number was inaccurate. “Despite repeated attempts [to count them], we must have missed animals, because we were at 94 in 2012, down to 71 in 2013, then we jumped back up to 120. I think we were likely on the rise throughout that entire time period.”)

Meanwhile the fenced herd at Tomales Point has dropped by half in the last two years. In 2012 it was 540, in 2013 it was 357 and it is now at 286. A lack of rainfall likely contributed to their ongoing struggles, though Mr. Press said disease could also have played a role, though there is no evidence of it.

Stock ponds in the fenced area that dried up during the drought have been replenished by rains in the last few months, but the seashore is developing a plan to truck water to an easily accessible pond, if it runs dry again in the future.

Still, Mr. Press said, the park typically lets nature take its course. “Policies for wildlife management that [the National Park Service] operates under are to generally just allow for natural processes to play themselves out within the park. When there are droughts, animals perish, and in good years, populations are abundant.”

Yet the fact that the fenced herd has no way to seek water beyond its boundaries complicates the issue. Providing additional forage, he warned, could end up artificially increasing the population, leading to an eventual crash or impacts to the landscape. Providing water a compromise. 

“I do think we need to be very careful about finding that balance, and I think providing water finds that balance,” Mr. Press said.