Point Reyes Tule Elk Herds Bounce Back After Devastating Drought Die-Off

Photo by Hari Nandakumar

Tule elk herds at Point Reyes National Seashore have shown significant recovery this winter after a considerable die-off during the drought, according to recent National Park Service data.

Point Reyes National Seashore is the only park in the US with tule elk and is home to three herds. The largest herd, situated in a fenced reserve on Tomales Point, grew by almost 19% from 221 elk in 2021 to 262 elk. The Drakes Beach herd, one of two free-roaming herds, increased from 151 to 170 elk between 2021 and 2022. However, park staff couldn’t count the other free-roaming herd, the Limantour herd, due to weather conditions and staffing limitations.

Melanie Gunn, a park official, said the National Park Service wildlife staff are tracking elk numbers from the Limantour herd within active ranching areas of the park and checking cow groups in the Phillip Burton Wilderness for a qualitative sense of calf production in 2022. The park’s management of the Tomales Point herd has faced criticism from environmental groups following the recent die-off.

The Tomales Point herd experienced a decrease from 445 elk to 292 elk between the winters of 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 amid a severe drought. This prompted the park to place water troughs and mineral licks in the reserve in 2021. In the same year, Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic filed a federal lawsuit accusing Point Reyes National Seashore of negligence in elk management and violation of federal law. The lawsuit claimed the park specifically violated the Administrative Procedure Act, a statute regulating federal agencies’ rule-making and judicial review of decisions.

In February, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court of Northern California ruled in favor of the park, dismissing the lawsuit. The plaintiffs, including Watershed Alliance of Marin steering committee member Laura Chariton, wildlife photographer Skyler Thomas, San Rafael resident Jack Gescheidt of the TreeSpirit Project, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, plan to appeal the decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2021, the park service began revising its 1998 management plan for the Tomales Point herd, considering options to remove the 3-mile, 8-foot-tall fence to let elk roam throughout the park or allow park staff to control the population by shooting some elk. The park service also adopted a separate management plan for its free-roaming tule elk herds, which has been challenged in federal court by environmental organizations.

Gescheidt and other plaintiffs argue that keeping tule elk in a fenced enclosure at Tomales Point or restricting herds to specific areas with ranch fences is unnatural. They claim that elk will continue to suffer as long as they are trapped in the fenced reserve, which they liken to a zoo. Gescheidt contends that the fences exist solely for private cattle ranchers’ benefit, who continue making money subsidized by the public.

The establishment of the Tomales Point elk herd in 1978 was an ecological success story in California, as tule elk were nearly extinct in the 19th century due to hunting and habitat loss. The park service plans to issue a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for its Tomales Point elk herd plan this spring, which will include a 30-day public comment period.

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