Tule elk at Point Reyes: A long history of relocation

09/19/2019

The draft general management plan amendment and environmental impact statement under public review for the Point Reyes National Seashore has generated some controversy, particularly regarding the management options for the herd of tule elk currently residing near Drakes Beach. As community members prepare their comments on the plan, it might help to better understand when, how and why the elk came to the peninsula, and how management conflicts with Point Reyes ranches have developed over time. 

Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) is a subspecies endemic to California, particularly the Central Valley, but market hunting reduced it to near extinction by the late 1800s, when a population of roughly 10 individuals was discovered on a cattle ranch near Bakersfield. This remnant herd was protected by the ranch owner, and increased to roughly 400 elk by 1914; in a series of attempts to reduce local crop damage, some of the animals were relocated to other areas around the state, including to Sequoia National Park in 1905, Del Monte Park in Monterey and Balboa Park in San Diego in 1914 and 1915, and Yosemite National Park in 1920. 

A decade later, the Yosemite herd was moved again, across the Sierras to Owens Valley; despite not being part of the subspecies’ original range, the elk adapted readily to the eastern Sierra and their numbers quickly increased, again bringing them into conflict with local ranchers. In response, the California Department of Fish and Game allowed culling by licensed hunters between 1943 and 1969. 

In 1971, the California legislature enacted Senate Bill 722 to encourage the expansion of the statewide population of tule elk to 2,000, building from a population at that time of about 600. The seashore, established nine years earlier in 1962, was soon named as one of four new reintroduction sites. According to the park’s administrative history, “when discussions regarding the possibility of elk reintroduction to Point Reyes began, the biggest concern among both locals and park staff was the potential for disrupting peninsula dairy and grazing operations.”

In 1976, Congress designated over 25,000 acres of the seashore as wilderness, including Tomales Point, which was considered a prime location for establishing a transplanted elk herd.  Longtime rancher Mervyn McDonald was forced to give up his lease at Pierce Point Ranch to make way for the new arrivals.

The herd of 10 elk—two males and eight females—arrived on Point Reyes in 1978, relocated from the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in the Central Valley, where they had been moved just four years earlier from their longtime home at the San Diego Zoo. They were released onto Tomales Point behind a 10-foot-high elk fence to prevent intermixing with cattle—both to prevent possible disease transmission and to avoid management conflicts. A population study conducted at the time estimated the carrying capacity for Tomales Point at 140 individuals, and assumed that “once the elk reached that level, the population would naturally stabilize.” 

Yet after the drought of the late 1970s ended, the Tomales Point population began to soar at an exponential rate: in 1988, the park recorded 93 individuals, but by 1994, the elk census showed 254 individuals and, in 1996, the population stood at 380.

In May 1997, park staff gave a presentation to the citizens advisory commission regarding the expanding herd on Tomales Point; the Point Reyes Light reported, “‘About 100 calves were born last year,’ researcher Judd Howell told commissioners at a meeting in the Dance Palace. ‘That was a wake-up call. Suddenly we had a 33 percent increase in population.’” Then-Superintendent Don Neubacher was quoted as saying, “I see no easy solutions to the management of the elk… But it’s important to create a long-term plan.”

This resulted in a 1998 tule elk management plan and environmental assessment. At the time, the Tomales Point herd was around 550, and the statewide population was 3,200 and growing. One of five objectives listed in the plan was to establish a free-ranging herd at Point Reyes by 2005.  

Implementation did not take that long; in December 1998, a number of elk were relocated via helicopter from Tomales Point to a 25-acre fenced range just north of Coast Camp, to be quarantined and monitored for several months. According to the Light, some residents expressed concern that the relocated elk would spread to private property on the east side of the Inverness Ridge, and “several ranchers in the National Seashore said that they’d like park staff to fence in areas so that cattle would not mix with the elk.” 

In June 1999, seashore staff released 27 elk from their holding pen into the wilderness area near Limantour Estero, a location chosen due to its “large acreage in natural zones with buffers from major highways, ranches, and lands outside the Seashore.” 

The elk management plan specified, “Damage to property could occur if elk move outside the Seashore onto private lands and consume crops or damage fences or other property. The Seashore will be ready to recapture or destroy problem animals should these situations arise, or establish partnerships with state and county agencies with the necessary skills and personnel to assist with the recapture… It may be possible for the Seashore to modify parts of the habitat to help prevent such occurrences, or construct barriers to dispersal.” 

The elk range identified in the 1998 plan was restricted to the wilderness area around and south of Limantour, not extending into the pastoral zone. Yet by the summer of 2000, at least two elk had turned up across Drakes Estero on the D Ranch, where the park had just terminated the Horick family’s lease. These animals eventually grew into the established herd that now is affecting ranches in that area of the park, where they cross into leased pastures, eating cattle forage that must be replaced with expensive hay and damaging fences and irrigation systems. Holes in fencing left by elk allow dairy cows to stray from their pastures, and potentially to breed at the wrong time or with the wrong bulls. 

Elk from the Limantour herd are regularly seen on ranches north of that area, causing similar problems.

The seashore’s annual report for 2001 stated, “Since their release, the new herd [at Limantour] has been carefully monitored to ensure animals remain within Seashore boundaries, do not interfere with cattle ranches within the park and are not shedding the organism that causes Johne’s disease.” 

Yet the elk have been interfering with ranches in that area for years now, with little official response.  

Despite their near-extinction in the late-1800s and the movement and culling of herds in the 20th century, tule elk have recovered well across California. 

“The behavioral plasticity of the tule elk contributes to this success, but also leads to problems of agricultural damage,” wildlife biologist Dale McCullough wrote in 1996. Currently roughly 5,700 tule elk reside in numerous locations across the state. Yet at almost every location, conflicts have been reported with ranches, chiefly arising from damage to crops, rangeland and fences. 

This makes intuitive sense, as tule elk, like cattle, are grazers that prefer open-range habitat and avoid forested areas. They are naturally drawn to cultivated pastures with plentiful food and water supplies.

Last week, Representative Jared Huffman called for greater consideration in the seashore’s planning process of relocating the Drakes Beach herd rather than the minimal culling described in some of the planning alternatives. 

Given the long history of tule elk successfully being moved around the state, including at Point Reyes in 1978 and 1998, this approach seems sound and worthy of greater attention. The separation fence on Tomales Point also has 40 years of relative success at keeping elk off nearby ranchlands; perhaps this option for keeping a healthy herd in the Limantour wilderness without adversely impacting historic ranches should be reconsidered, too.

 

Dr. Laura Alice Watt is a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Planning at Sonoma State University. Her book on the history of management at Point Reyes, titled “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” was published by the UC Press in 2017