For the first time ever, the Point Reyes National Seashore is providing supplemental water to the fenced tule elk herd on Tomales Point. The park announced last week that it had installed three 250-gallon troughs at the south end of the reserve that will remain there at least until the winter rains. Dave Press, the park’s wildlife ecologist, said there are still natural water sources for the herd, and that the move was made out of “an abundance of caution.”

A tule elk requires five to eight gallons of water a day, moisture it finds in natural seeps, springs and ponds. Depending on how foggy the seashore gets, elk also get a significant amount of water from forage. But drought conditions on the peninsula are already much worse than in recent summers. “There are reliable seeps and springs that have completely dried up, which is nothing we’ve ever observed before,” Mr. Press said.

The elks’ water supply has been a contentious issue. Last summer, activists illegally brought water into the reserve after learning that the animals were dying of thirst behind the eight-foot fence. Until now, the park contended that the herd’s water supply was adequate. 

But this spring, Marin declared a local drought emergency. Dairies began trucking in water, and ranchers reduced herd sizes. In the seashore, the grazing needs of elk and cattle have often been in conflict; now, the drought is diminishing the quality of the forage that both depend on. 

“I’m very grateful that the park service is finally taking this seriously,” said Diana Oppenheim, founder of ForElk, an activist group that has staged protests against ranching in the park. “I wish that they had done it sooner, because there has been a mass die-off already.”

Of the nearly 600 elk in the park, about half live behind the fence on Tomales Point, where they were reintroduced in 1978 after their extirpation a century earlier. The fenced herd did well, and in 1998, the park completed a tule elk management plan that recommended releasing some elk from the preserve to create a free-range herd elsewhere in the park. 

A year later, 27 elk were released near the Limantour Estero, the start of a population now known as the Limantour herd. A few elk from that herd soon appeared across Drakes Estero, and eventually grew into the Drakes Beach herd, which has presented the most significant challenge for ranching operations. The park’s pending general management plan amendment allows for minimal annual culling of this herd.

The 1998 elk plan predicted that the park’s hands-off approach to the fenced herd would lead to a boom-and-bust cycle of elk births and mortality. This has gone as predicted, with many births during rainy years and significant die-offs during drought years. The population dropped by almost half between 2012 and 2014. After a subsequent boom, the herd shrunk again last year from around 450 to 300. The park attributed the deaths to malnutrition resulting from poor forage quality due to drought conditions.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife put out a plan for managing confined elk in 2018, recommending reducing the number of fenced-in herds. But the agency stopped short of advising the release of any of the Tomales Point herd because of the risk of spreading Johne’s disease, a gastrointestinal infection that has afflicted the herd. 

The new troughs, which are fed by 2,000-gallon tanks placed along Pierce Point Road, were up and running last Friday. The park is planning to install temporary signage cautioning the public against congregating near the troughs, to ensure that elk have enough space to come drink. 

It is not the first time the park has intervened to provide additional water for elk on the peninsula. For several years, in an effort to steer the free-ranging Drakes Beach herd away from pastures on the historic D Ranch, the park has filled two ponds on the ranch as year-round water sources for the elk. The Limantour herd is believed to have adequate water from the streams that run off the Inverness Ridge.

The park consulted with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria about its decision to supplement water. Tule elk are sacred animals for the Coast Miwok, and tribal chair Greg Sarris said the tribe had been concerned about them dying.

“When they brought the elk back 40 years ago, it was like finding a piece of our sacred text,” he said. “It’s something integral to the revitalization of our culture and our people.”

Mr. Sarris said it was also important to be practical about the reality of ranching and wildlife on the peninsula. “As we deal with preserving the sacred animal,” he said, “we have to deal with the reality of the world we’ve made, that we’ve put them back in.” He said the park should consider feeding the animals. 

But Mr. Press said bringing feed or mineral supplements to the elk was “just not something we do as wildlife managers.” Feeding the herd would artificially keep it at a level that the land can’t maintain without any clear ecological benefit, he said. 

Still, Mr. Press said the management of the fenced herd deserves renewed attention. The 1998 plan says that species in the park are adapted for the occurrence of drought as part of the normal climate in California, and it does not mention providing additional water under any conditions. 

In light of climate patterns that the park service could not have predicted, Mr. Press said it could be time to revisit the more than 20-year-old plan. “The management plan from 1998 is silent on climate change,” Mr. Press said. “It is an old plan and it merits a fresh look.”