State’s first-ever elk plan might inform Point Reyes

12/07/2017

To address growing numbers of native elk in California and heightened conflicts with public and private landowners, the Department of Fish and Wildlife released a first-ever comprehensive management plan that details recommendations for the state’s elk populations.

The draft plan, which is available for public comment through January, describes the unique difficulties of managing tule elk on Point Reyes, which is home to one of just three fenced herds in the state as well as the only group that continually tests positive for Johne’s disease, a gastrointestinal disease common in livestock.

The plan offers recommendations for the National Park Service’s management of the fenced herd, but it does not weigh in on the stickier problem of the seashore’s two free-ranging herds, given the current planning process underway at Point Reyes.

“The timing of this [plan] is important,” Melanie Gunn, a spokeswoman for the Point Reyes National Seashore, said in reference to the park’s preparation of a general management plan amendment. “It’s very informative for us to see all the formulas to address conflicts between elk and agriculture throughout the state.”

California has three of the four remaining elk species in North America—tule, Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain—and though numbers have climbed in the past four decades from 3,500 to 13,000 after being pushed to near extinction in the mid-1800s, numbers will likely never reach the historic peak of 500,000 due to agricultural expansion and development.

Though Fish and Wildlife manages only a small fraction of land within the current elk range, it provides input to the public land management agencies that do. The department seeks to uphold the goals of California’s wildlife policy—namely, to maintain sufficient wildlife resources for their intrinsic values, to provide for diverse public uses and economic contribution to citizens, and to alleviate economic losses and public health and safety problems.

A history of management

Ten tule elk were introduced to a fenced enclosure on Tomales Point in 1978, following legislation in 1972 that directed the federal government to make suitable lands available for the preservation and grazing of tule elk. There they survived a decade of drought, but with the return of the rains in the early 1990s, range conditions improved dramatically and the elk herd grew rapidly. 

By 1998, the herd size surpassed 500 animals, one of the largest of the 22 herds in the state at that time.

In 1993, the park formed a scientific panel to determine whether or not the herd necessitated active management. Ultimately, the panel recommended the park allow the elk to self-regulate unless their habitat impacts exceeded a certain threshold. The park was directed at that time to determine this threshold based on impacts to vegetation, such as soil health and impact on threatened and endangered flora and fauna.

But the panel also gave a warning: Both the park service and the public should “clearly understand the consequences of implementing such a strategy.” In particular, as the population increases in density and less forage is available per animal, reproduction decreases and mortality increases.

“We can reliably predict that if such a strategy is employed, the tule elk will seasonally be malnourished and appear less ‘healthy’ and that dead and dying animals will become more evident,” the panel wrote in 1993.

It also stated that “we view the integrity of the ecosystem as the predominant goal of elk management,” and recommended that if necessary, culling be employed as the ultimate control method to hold numbers.  

At the panel’s suggestion, the park completed an elk management plan in 1998, which to date is its last living guidance for elk management. The plan largely reflected the hands-off approach recommended by the panel, primarily outlining the need for further research on the abundance of food and water, predation, disease and population control techniques. 

In an effort to control the population at Tomales Point, the 1998 plan also directed the park to establish a free ranging herd. The move was part of a larger vision to have elk range freely in Point Reyes.  

If any elk were to remain as part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, the plan stated, “they should eventually become free ranging throughout most of the Seashore’s natural zones where conditions allow.” Regulating the free-ranging population might still be necessary, it added. 

The plan also stated that removing the fence at Tomales Point would only be considered “if and when ranching ceases on the adjacent lands” because “to open the Tomales Point elk range with adjacent lands under ranching could negatively impact both ranching and the elk habitat.”

In 1998, the park relocated 45 elk from Tomales Point to an area near Limantour Beach. The animals were kept in a holding pen for six months and tested repeatedly for Johne’s disease; individuals that tested positive were culled.

But within weeks of their release from the pen, a few of the animals unexpectedly migrated to ranches near Drakes Beach, where some elk have now tested positive for the disease. 

In recent years, the population at Drakes Beach numbers around 100 and the Limantour herd around 125. These elk eat expensive organic forage, drink from cattle ponds and damage fences, leading ranchers to call for immediate action to manage the herds.

The park attempted to address those issues in recent years with the preparation of a comprehensive ranch management plan, but was stymied by a lawsuit brought by three environmental groups. 

Now, with some options mandated by the terms of the recent settlement agreement, the park will again attempt to create a management plan for the free-ranging herds. The Tomales Point herd is excluded from the park’s current planning process. 

The fenced herd

The state’s new draft plan outlines several goals for the management of the Tomales Point herd, which it identified as one of 22 high-priority areas in the state. These goals include evaluating the feasibility of releasing animals to free-roaming conditions on adjacent lands, collaborating with the park service to enhance habitat within the enclosure, increasing viewing and educational opportunities, and conducting further research to determine preferred population control methods.

“It’s very valuable for us to have this report so we can revisit our management strategies for the Tomales Point herd,” Dave Press, the park’s wildlife ecologist, said. Mr. Press added that he had just begun to comb through the plan, which won’t be finalized until early next year following the public comment period.

The presence of Johne’s disease in the fenced herd presents particular challenges to management, according to Fish and Game’s statewide elk and pronghorn antelope coordinator, Joe Hobbs. Only one individual has tested positive for the disease elsewhere in the state, while the disease has been documented in Point Reyes elk in multiple studies since 1980. But park officials state that they have not encountered any animals with physical symptoms of Johne’s disease, which can have little effect on adult animals. 

“Although we have confirmed that Johne’s disease is present, we do not have any evidence that the disease is affecting individual survival or population dynamics in any significant way,” Mr. Press said.

Nevertheless, the disease makes a common management strategy employed with the state’s other fenced herds—relocation—unfeasible.

All three of the state’s fenced herds—the others are at the Tupman Tule Elk Reserve in Kern County and San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County—are enclosed due to conflicts with landowners. “Confining the elk was regarded as the only way to respect landowner rights and mitigate the economic threat to agricultural operations on private land,” the draft plan states.

Yet in restricted habitats, populations can boom, making management a more pressing concern. Scientists often relocate individuals from the Kern and Merced County herds to provide genetic diversity to other populations—an especially beneficial tool because it’s easier to monitor the health of fenced animals and capture them.

But this has not been an option for the Tomales Point herd since scientists first discovered the presence of Johne’s disease in 1980, just two years after the elk were reintroduced there. (It remains disputed whether the cattle or the elk were the original carriers. Both species in Point Reyes now carry the disease, which can lower milk production and can cause mortalities in cattle.)

In an additional challenge for management on Point Reyes, public hunting is prohibited in the seashore. In recent history, there has also been strong public opposition to culling, referring to trained park employees or contractors shooting the animals. (In 2008, there was public uproar over the park’s decision to eliminate two entire herds of non-native deer.) 

From 1997 to 2002, the seashore experimented with immuno-contraception as a means of population control at Tomales Point. The immunogen, administered by a dart, works by stimulating the cow’s immune system to produce antibodies that block sperm from attaching to the ovum.

But this method requires annual booster shots. Mr. Press explained in an email: “As the animals needed to be boostered annually via remote darts, supply and labor costs to sustain a program like this are important issues to consider. In addition, the elk became harder to approach for boostering and the identifying radio collars became less reliable over time, which would complicate the ability to sustain a successful contraception program.” 

He added that the methods caused female reproductive cycles to persist far outside of the normal breeding season, resulting in mating behavior over a very extended period of time. Male fitness was also compromised as bulls defended harems for longer periods of time.

Despite the challenges of finding a good population management strategy, numbers at Tomales Point have remained relatively stable without drastic intervention. The 10 animals introduced in 1978 grew to more than 500 a decade later, but since that time, the population has averaged at around 400.

There were steep declines in 2004 and 2005 and then later in 2013 and 2014, due primarily to drought conditions, among other factors. But in both cases, the population stabilized. Mr. Press said the trend more or less aligns with the predictions from the park’s earliest elk management research and goals. And although mineral deficiencies have been observed in the herd, the impacts have not been as extreme as the scientific panel once feared.

Free-ranging herds

The state’s draft plan excluded any discussion of the two free-ranging tule elk populations on Point Reyes, which roam the Phillip Burton Wilderness, one near Drakes Beach and the other near Limantour Beach. It’s these herds that have caused hardship to ranchers.

A 2013-2014 report by the seashore stated that in the Drakes Beach area, up to 77 percent of elk locations per year were recorded on park ranches. In the Estero Road area, up to 93 percent of elk locations per year were recorded on ranches.

The seashore has helped fix fences since the early 2000s, when elk began appearing on ranches, and later began experimenting with new fences near Home Ranch. It has also installed so-called “elk crossings,” where sections of lowered fences allow elk to clear them instead of damaging them.

The park has experimented with other mitigation measures with varying levels of success. Starting in 2012, they filled two ponds at the defunct D Ranch in an attempt to lure them away from C Ranch, one of the more heavily impacted ranches. 

They also tried hazing elk, wherein a park employee would approach the animals twice a day in an attempt to scare them off ranch lands. “Unfortunately—I’ll be straight with you—it wasn’t that successful,” Mr. Press told the Light in 2013. Although they would leave when spooked, they would return soon afterwards.

For Fish and Wildlife, Mr. Hobbs explained that the agency chose not to provide guidance on those herds to avoid conflict with the park’s current efforts to create new management strategies for them.

“Point Reyes probably has the most complicated elk herd group in the state—you have different, sometimes competing interests from the public, the leaseholders and the park,” Mr. Hobbs acknowledged.

As a result of a recent settlement agreement with three environmental groups that sued the park last year, the park must prepare an amendment to its general management plan by 2021 to address management of the free-ranging elk and the future of the leased ranches in Point Reyes and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 

The park’s proposed alternatives for elk management range from completely eliminating the Drakes Beach herd, to actively managing both herds in order to reduce conflicts with ranchlands, to allowing them to expand with no population management.

In three of the park’s six proposed alternatives, one of which is identified as the park’s “initial proposal,” minimum and maximum population thresholds for the Drakes Beach herd would be established and, for the Limantour herd, the park would “implement actions to manage tule elk on the ranchlands.”

 

Comments on Fish and Wildlife’s draft statewide elk management plan may be submitted online at ElkManagementPlan@wildlife.ca.gov, or can be mailed to: California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife Branch, Attn: Joe Hobbs, 1812 Ninth St., Sacramento, CA 95811.