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Tule Elk in Point Reyes

Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay. Photo by wildlife photograhper Matthew Polvorosa Kline.

Tule elk are a California endemic subspecies, and a natural and historical heritage of coastal California.

Tule elk expert Dale McCullough in his 1969 study, estimated that in 1850 approximately 500,000 tule elk roamed California. In the 1850s and 1860s, heavy market hunting—much of this due to the influx of gold miners to California—lead to the extirpation of elk at Point Reyes (and over much of the state). By the late 1870s, only 10 individuals remained in Kern County, and this bottlenecked population became the seed source for all tule elk present in California today.

Absent for over 150 years, elk were reintroduced at Point Reyes in 1978 with the transfer of 10 individuals from San Luis National Wildlife Refuge to Tomales Point. The erection of a three-mile-long fence across the peninsula from the Pacific Ocean to Tomales Bay isolated the herd from adjacent dairy ranches on national park land. This created a 2,600-acre enclosure that constitutes the main elk range in the Seashore.


The National Park Service moved some elk outside of the fenced reserve to near Limantour Beach. Those elk roamed and split into a few new herds, and we saw several near Drake's Beach in March 2018. 

Seeing tule elk in the wilderness areas of the park and so close to where the original observations of elk by Sir Francis Drake in the late 1500s is an amazing experience.

Free-roaming tule elk herd near Drake's Beach. These elk are literally soon to be in the crosshairs if the park proposal to cull elk is undertaken. Photo by Laura Cunningham.

Tule elk (Cervus cannadensis nannodes) are a California endemic subspecies, and a natural and historical heritage of coastal California. The elk preserve population on Tomales Point is fenced into a narrow peninsula that lacks adequate water during drought, a confinement that possibly killed hundreds of elk between 2012 and 2014. The fence must come down, and elk, not livestock, should be allowed to thrive throughout Point Reyes National Seashore.

The ongoing restoration of the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) tule elk population is “a jewel in the crown” of National Park Service success stories. The National Park Service’s mission is to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (16 U.S. Code § 1). The National Park Service’s mission is not to promote the commercial/business interests of a handful of private entities at the expense of treasured public resources. 


The agency’s 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan included a goal of attaining a free-ranging tule elk herd by 2005, stating: Their limitation to Tomales Point is an historical artifact of their reintroduction onto an area bounded by historic ranches and the intent to restrict their

movements to a protected preserve. If they are to remain as part of the Seashore's fauna and ecological processes, they should eventually become free-ranging throughout most of the Seashore's natural zones where conditions allow.

This provision of the Tule Elk Management Plan is being hindered by the small but highly vocal livestock industry that continues to lease public lands on Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern district of Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) = the planning area considered in the draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Elk biologist Dale McCullough (1969) estimated that in 1850 approximately 500,000 tule elk

roamed California. In the 1850s and 1860s, heavy market hunting—much of this due to the influx of gold miners to California—lead to the extirpation of elk at Point Reyes. By the late 1870s, only 10 individuals remained in Kern County, and this bottlenecked population became the seed source for all tule elk present in California today. According to McCullough et al. (1993: 25) tule elk are genetically quite similar and the entire population is inbred. According to NPS (1998: 39), the population of tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore has been estimated to contain the lowest level of genetic variation (or heterozygosity) of all the herds in the state, based upon an analysis of translocations and bottlenecks (McCullough et al. 1996). This heterozygosity would be

enhanced by removing the fence at Tomales Point and thereby allowing all tule elk on

Point Reyes National Seashore to mix and interbreed.

Cattle (both dairy and beef) are non-native species that compete for forage with elk, to the detriment of elk growth and reproduction. According to McCullough et al. (1993: 6), early growth of the Tomales Point Herd was slow due to over-utilization of the range by domestic cattle. This situation remains in the Pastoral Zone, where cattle grazing continues to interfere with the expansion and recovery of tule elk. Absent for over 150 years, elk were reintroduced at Point Reyes in 1978 with the transfer of 10 individuals from San Luis National Wildlife Refuge to Tomales Point. The erection of a three-mile-long fence across the peninsula from the Pacific Ocean to Tomales Bay isolated the herd from adjacent dairy ranches. This created a 2,600-acre enclosure that constitutes the current elk range in the Seashore.

The NPS, in the draft EIS, must disclose any scientific basis for fencing a free-ranging elk population, and for maintaining an isolated elk population on such a small, constricted, and limited spatial area. NPS must present information on the availability (or lack thereof) of fresh surface water within the Tomales Point enclosure during times of drought, and also present information on the likelihood of more extended and/or deeper droughts on PRNS in the future as a result of the changing climate. This appears to be an unnatural and harmful practice that should be ended through the removal of the Tomales Point fence. Livestock competes with native wildlife for habitat and forage, and indeed the best tule elk habitat on Point Reyes National Seashore shows a strong overlap with lands currently leased for agricultural purposes.


According to Cobb (2010:70), elk were observed avoiding pastures when cattle were present and cattle were seen chasing elk from pastures on multiple occasions. These observations were supported by concurrent GPS collar data that showed Pt. Reyes tule elk almost entirely avoided

pastures occupied by cattle (unpublished data). NPS must evaluate and disclose the negative impacts of livestock themselves, and of livestock fencing, on tule elk under each


NPS needs to estimate the total carrying capacity of PRNS/GGNRA for tule elk in the absence of competition with non-native livestock, as a baseline for estimating the current negative impacts of livestock grazing leasing and operations on tule elk. 


We support the elimination of livestock grazing through non-renewal as leases and reservations expire, the removal of all fences erected by the livestock industry or for the purpose of restricting the access of elk to the full extent of Point Reyes National Seashore, and the future management of elk through natural increase and population limitation in the absence of culling or contraception of any kind. The forthcoming EIS should fully investigate and disclose the extent to which fences have impaired the movements and health of tule elk, and require that any fences that remain for administrative purposes be built to maximize wildlife safety and passage. Tule elk roamed at will throughout Point Reyes prior to the arrival of human management, and native ecosystems were much healthier than they are today with the questionable benefit of park interference.

We are also concerned that elk at Point Reyes may be suffering from dietary deficiencies as a result of their confinement in the small area of Tomales Point. Gogan et al. (1989) found that plants and soils at Tomales Point were deficient in copper (an essential trace element), molybdenum, and sulfur-sulfates, and that elk were showing gross signs of copper deficiency, which may have been a contributing factor in the death of two elk in Spring of 1979. Gogan et al (1988) reported antler deformities in elk on Tomales Point, which they related to copper deficiencies. Cobb (2010) found that themost common cause of death for tule elk at Point Reyes was starvation, oftenaccompanied with copper and selenium deficiencies. Twelve soil types underlie PRNS, based on differences in parent rock (NPS 1998). Only one of these, the Sheridan-

Baywood soil type, is associated with the Tomales Point area (id.), where copper deficiencies are known to occur. Removing the fence at Tomales Point and allowing elk free and unfettered access to all of PRNS permits elk to graze on vegetation growing from multiple geological substrates, thereby eliminating the specter of copper deficiencies and other dietary problems and disease vulnerabilities caused by confinement on Tomales Point.

According to NPS policy, the National Park Service will seek to perpetuate the native animal life as part of the natural ecosystems of parks. Management emphasis will be on minimizing human impacts on natural animal population dynamics. Specifically addressing the management of California tule elk, Public Law 94-389, Preservation of Tule. Elk Population-California in 1976 states that: The Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Secretary of

Defense shall cooperate with the State of California in making lands under their respective jurisdictions reasonably available for the preservation and grazing of tule elk in such manner and to such extent as may be consistent with Federal Law. The agency currently is not living up to these policy and statutory requirements on PRNS, but can correct this deficiency by permitting tule elk full and unfettered access to all of PRNS. 

We are concerned that elk limited to the Tomales Point enclosure lack adequate sources of water during drought periods. NPS (1998: 12) itself recognized this problem: The peninsula of Tomales Point ranges from a narrow tip to over a mile and a half wide at the fence line enclosing the elk range. There are no natural year-round streams. The natural streams have significant flows only during the rainy winter months. From late spring to late autumn, only spring-fed seeps would provide water for elk if not for the existence of eight water impoundments originally built

for cattle.

It has been reported that during the drought of 2012-2014, the Tomales Point elk herd declined by 47%, while over the same period the Limantour and Drakes Beach Herds increased by a combined 32% over the same period. Removing the fence at Tomales Point and allowing the Tomales Point Herd full and unfettered access to all of PRNS would eliminate water scarcity problems that appear to have had a major negative effect on this herd in years past. With Climate Change, such extreme droughts may become more common in California, thus putting

the Tomales Point Herd at risk again in the future.

Shortly after the original reintroduction of tule elk in 1978, a number of subadults died from Johnes disease, or paratuberculosis, a disease they contracted from cattle (Watt

2015, Gogan and Barrett 1986, and see Gogan et al. 1989). We concur with the conclusions of the Point Reyes Scientific Advisory Panel (McCullough et al. 1993: 34): The long-range goal of elk management at PRNS should be the re-establishment of free-ranging elk throughout the seashore and associated public lands. This would involve removal of the fence across Tomales Point. NPS and California Department of Fish and Wildlife should develop a long-range management plan with the goal of achieving a large, healthy, free-ranging elk population subjected to a minimum of management intervention.

Cobb (2010) projected that the greatest potential for elk population growth on Point Reyes was on ranchlands, and predicted increasing future conflicts. Phasing out domestic livestock on the National Seashore would eliminate this source of conflict.

The National Park Service should comply with its legal, regulatory, policy, and past planning mandates and remove all barriers to tule elk expansion and recolonization of all lands within PRNS. No elk population should be constrained in its population numbers or distribution within PRNS, and there are no scientifically defensible maximum population thresholds that can be legitimately applied on a scientific basis. Over time, all populations of tule elk should be permitted to expand and interbreed, and likewise, populations of blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) should be permitted to expand in the absence of domestic livestock and other non-native herbivores.

Tule elk may continue to be infected with Johne's disease with beef cattle, which can also be carriers. The pathways of Johne’s disease spread from cattle to tule elk should be analyzed in the EIS. Specifically, how many of the cattle on Point Reyes are infected by Johne’s disease. The NPS should require testing of all livestock on PRNS and GGNRA as part of the ‘hard look’ and ‘baseline information’ gathering required by NEPA. Any livestock found to be infected should be removed from Park Service administered lands. To what extent can the bacteria causing Johne’s disease capable of infecting humans, and what disease(s) do they cause? Are the bacteria that cause Johne’s disease present in local waterways (particularly Kehoe Creek, which flows down to a

popular beach and has documented E. coli exceedences)? To what extent are the bacteria

that cause Johne’s disease present in liquified manure that is spread on hilltops throughout the National Seashore? To what extent is the public at risk of contracting disease from Johne’s bacteria from cattle manure, contaminated waterways, and/or manure-spreading operations? These are serious public health and safety questions that must be addressed in the forthcoming EIS.

Cobb (2010) did a resource selection function study that shows that tule elk would be expected to differentially select the same areas most productive for cattle. This argues for allowing elk in the 26,000-acre leased area.

Concerning social avoidance of elk to cattle, there is an abundance of scientific studies that have found that elk avoid areas that are being actively used by livestock. This is not simply about the loss of forage consumed by domestic livestock, but elk are socially displaced. If one presumes that animals always seek out the best habitat, social displacement means they are moving into less suitable habitat. It might be less palatable forage. It might be more vulnerability to predators or visitor disturbance. See Freilich et al. 2009, Kratville 1989, and Frisina 1992. The NPS should analyze this in is EIS.

Elk are getting entangled in cattle fences. This is unacceptable in a national park for native wildlife to potentially be harmed or die in fences. At the very least wildlifefriendly fences need to be contructed. Cattle fences should be limited in height to no more than 36” high, with the bottom strand at least 16” above the ground and made of smooth wire. These limits are necessary for wildlife passage, and should be required retrofits to existing fencing at the expense of the lessee.

No hunting should be allowed in Point Reyes National Seashore or Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The new GMP should prohibit all firearms carried by visitors, and firearms use of any kind except for law enforcement. There was a 1974 killing of a Park Ranger on Point Reyes illustrating that in a high-population park setting close to urban population centers, the risk of gun violence is significant. This is a high-recreation density landscape. If hunting was allowed, there would be no way to assure that recreational visitors would not be struck or killed by a stray bullet, either by hunters or by federal or state shooters in the context of killing native wildlife. In addition, hunting of tule elk would inevitably result in the shooting of non-target species, because a subset of hunters will shoot anything that moves, just for the thrill of it, and state and federal officials are in no position to prevent this. Any prohibitions on guns and shooting be carried forward into the new GMP.

This is your public lands and your park. What do you think? Comment here to tell the National Park Service how you would like the Seashore and tule elk to be managed. 


Cobb, M.A. 2010. Spatial Ecology and Population Dynamics of Tule Elk (Cervus

elaphus nannodes) at Point Reyes National Seashore, California. PhD Diss., Univ. of

Calfornia, Berkeley, 202 pp.

Frisina, M. R. 1992. Elk habitat use within a rest-rotation grazing system. Rangelands


Gogan, P.J.P. 1986. Ecology of the tule elk range, Point Reyes National Seashore. PhD.

Diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley.

Gogan, P.J.P., and R.H. Barrett. 1986. Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore. Pp. 32-

81 in Proc. Of the Conf. on Science in the National Parks, Fort Collins, CO, July 13-18,


Gogan, P.J.P., D.A. Jessup, and R.H. Barrett. 1988. Antler anomalies in tule elk. J. Wildl.

Dis. 24: 656-662.

Gogan, P.J.P., D.A. Jessup, and M. Akeson. 1989. Copper deficiency in tule elk at Point

Reyes, California. J. Range Manage. 42: 233-238.

Kratville, S. P. 1989. Elk habitat selection, distribution, and nutrition as influenced by

cattle in east-central Idaho.

McCullough, D. R. 1969. The Tule Elk—its History, Behavior, and Ecology. Univ.

California Publ. Zool., 88.

McCullough, D.R., R.A. Garrot, J.F. Kirkpatrick, E.D. Ploka, K.D. Ralls, and E.T.

Thorne. 1993. Report of the Scientific Advisory Panel on control of tule elk on Point

Reyes National Seashore. Final Report, October 18, 1993, 39 pp.

National Park Service (NPS). 1998. Point Reyes National Seashore Tule Elk

Management Plan and Environmental Assessment.

Tule elk bull with barbed wire tangled in his antlers, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by wildlife photographer Jim Coda: https://jimcoda.com/tag/bull-tule-elk/