by Ken Bouley (Banner photo (c)  Sarah Killingsworth)

Much has been written about tule elk in Point Reyes. Cervus canadensis nannodes, endemic to California, once had a broad range across the state and numbered somewhere around a half-million animals. Hunting, habitat loss and other gold-rush-fueled pressures brought the species to the brink of extinction near the end of the 19th century.

Around then, a small herd was found on the ranch of a cattleman named Henry Miller, who gave the few lingering elk some room and saw them multiply modestly. The federal government got involved in 1914, and in 1934 a captive herd was established in Owens Valley, on the dry side of the Sierras, east-southeast of Yosemite National Park. From there, California Fish and Wildlife, along with NPS and other agencies, seeded several herds, many of them captive, around the state in nooks and crannies deemed appropriate.

Tule elk have gone through a gravely concerning genetic bottleneck. Biologist Julie Phillips, who has been studying the subspecies for 30 years, says it is facing a dire future: “For the Tule Elk subspecies to go from over 500,000 to less than 20 individuals is a concern due to the loss of genetic diversity and thus loss of the ability to adapt to environmental changes over time, including climate change.”

The Point Reyes tule elk story started in 1978 when the agencies chose Tomales Point as another suitable location to further their recovery. The Tomales Point Elk Reserve was defined with an 8-foot high, mile-and-a-half-long fence from the Pacific Coast to Tomales Bay, cordoning off the tip of the peninsula, elk to the north, cows to the south.


An elk bull behind the 8’ fence defining the elk reserve in point Reyes national Seashore. The fence keeps elk off the adjacent cattle ranches. Note the difference in vegetation on either side of the fence. Photo courtesy © Daniel Dietrich www.pointreyessafaris.com.

The situation was somewhat stable for a while. Cumulative, up-to-date population data are not easy to find. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the total statewide population seems to have hit a high-water mark of around 7,000 and now is somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000, roughly 1 percent of their historic numbers.

According to NPS surveys, roughly half of the 540 elk comprising the confined Tomales Point herd died during the drought of 2013-2015, while the free-ranging herds grew over that time. Former Marin County Supervisor Gary Giacomini, whose family is among the prominent ranching settlers, told the New York Times that NPS was to blame: “It strikes me as absolutely preposterous, if not criminal, that the Park Service would let half the elk herd die by depriving them of water.”

In 2019 – 2020, NPS found that again the number of elk counted behind the fence fell sharply, this time from 445 to 293. Local wildlife photographer Matthew Polvorosa Kline, who exposed this latest die-off, spent many hours in the elk reserve documenting weak and dead elk. His often-difficult images fueled protests and other forms of objection from the public. Although NPS has steadfastly maintained that these die-offs are “natural and predictable,” under increased public pressure, the agency did eventually bring water and mineral supplements to the confined herds in the hot summer of 2021. The crest of that public outcry was a lawsuit filed by the Harvard Law Clinic in June 2021 over the NPS’s treatment of the elk in the reserve, citing the Animal Rights Act.

A dead tule elk in a nearly dry watering hole in Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo courtesy of © Matthew Polvorosa Kline.

Things got more interesting on March 31, 2022, when NPS announced it would update its management plan for the Elk Reserve, and solicited for public feedback based on NPS’s policy for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA.)

On June 9, 2023, they released a summary of that feedback: more than 20,000 public comments were submitted to the agency, nearly unanimously in favor of taking down the fence and prioritizing nature over commerce in the park. Surprising ranchers and activists alike, the June statement included a preferred action of removing the elk fence and letting the elk roam freely out of the reserve. Two other potential actions were included, one being a “no action” alternative that would leave things as they are, and a third alternative which would involve maintaining the fence and actively managing the elk population through culling.

The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association is on record in a 2014 letter to the Park Service, saying that elk and cattle “cannot co-exist.” Environmental groups don’t mind that assertion, depending on its implications and eventual consequences. Albert Straus, founder and CEO of nationally known Straus Family Creamery, which buys milk from three dairies in the Seashore, said removing the fence would be a nail in the coffin for ranchers in Point Reyes. “By taking the fence down, it pretty much determines that there won’t be ranching in the park,” he told CBS News Bay Area.

Of course, if the elk fence comes down, the big question is, then what?

Tule elk have become the totem animal of various environmental and citizen groups who want ranching ended in Point Reyes. Those groups must, of course, answer the question of how the elk population will eventually be controlled, given the absence of significant predators such as grizzlies and wolves, both of which are inappropriate for a heavily visited park of such a small size. Contraception is expensive. Translocation is thwarted by the fact that some elk in Point Reyes have tested positive for Johne’s, a wasting disease they caught commingling with cattle, and so California Fish and Wildlife prohibits moving them out to seed other herds elsewhere.

Activist’s graffiti in the Tomales Point Elk Reserve. Photos by © Kelli Petersen.

But Julie Phillips says that restoring the native landscape should be the No. 1 priority for lands within national parks. “It is critical to have free roaming Tule Elk populations and not ‘captive’ herds, especially in our National Park,” she said. “The Tule Elk will be instrumental in the long-term restoration of the native landscape in Point Reyes National Seashore.”


Point Reyes National Seashore is asking for comments from the public.  Let them know Parks are for Wildlife, Not Cows

The National Park Service is calling for public comments regarding its management plan for tule elk currently held behind a fence at Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore.  Confined behind a fence, there have been massive die-offs, especially during drought years, where they are cut off from adequate water sources.

It is time to let these magnificent wild animals roam free in our National Seashore.

Please take action today.  It only takes a couple of minutes.

The comment period ends on September 25, 2023. Please join us in asking the Park Service to remove the 8-foot fence that dooms native tule elk to slow and painful deaths during recurring drought periods.

It is easy to comment, but you must do so on the NPS web page. https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=131377

You can simply copy/paste some of the points below, though adding a personal touch to your message is the most effective.

Points to make:

  • Please execute Alternative B, Unconfined Elk Herd and Pierce Ranch Core Area.
  • Thank you, National Park Service, for finally listening to the overwhelming voice of the public and removing the elk fence from Point Reyes. Fences are inappropriate in wilderness, and cattle should not be prioritized over wild animals.
  • Confined native elk dying of thirst and malnutrition in a National Park is not acceptable.
  • Once the elk fence is removed, the elk to roam freely and steps should be taken to allow avoid any culling, hazing, or harassment of the elk for any reason.
  • Cattle operations are no longer appropriate in Point Reyes and should be ceased to honor the true charter of our Seashore, stated in the Point Reyes Enabling Legislation as “the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area,” and in the Organic Act of 1916 as to “provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Ken Bouley is an environmentalist writer and activist and lives adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore