How Tule Elk Came To Live on Point Reyes
Tomales Point (or Pierce Point) at the northern tip of the peninsula was considered a prime location for establishing a Tule elk herd. Long-time rancher Mervyn McDonald was forced to give up his lease at Pierce Point Ranch to make way for the 10 new arrivals. McDonald watched the new animals arrive in 1978 and sit out a quarantine period in an enclosure the size of a tennis court. The long-time rancher saw a female elk drop dead the very day it was released to the wild.
The elk were kept behind a 10-foot-high elk fence in order to prevent intermixing with cattle to prevent possible disease transmission and to avoid management conflicts. One park specialist estimated the area could carry 140 individual elk but the population grew to roughly 550 by 1998. NPS’s 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment suggested establishing a free-ranging herd by 2005, and in December of 1998, a number of elk were moved to a 25-acre fenced range just north of Coast Camp. They were quarantined and monitored for Johne’s disease (characterized by diarrhea) for several months. Nearby residents and several ranchers in the National Seashore requested that the Park erect another fence to keep cattle and elk separate. This was not done before the Seashore staff released twenty-seven elk into the wilderness near Limantour Estero in June of 1999.
The 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan clearly states, “The Park Service has a responsibility to be a good neighbor to adjacent and nearby landowners. Anticipating the effects of tule elk management strategies on the property or perceptions of neighbors is an important consideration. Any depredations by elk on fences, crops, or other property would require mitigation actions to correct or avoid problems.” The Plan specifies that it “makes no effort” to hasten the closure of ranches within the Seashore, and while it considered an alternative (B) that would have allowed elk to free-range throughout the Seashore, that alternative was explicitly rejected.
Under the preferred Alternative A, the Limantour area was chosen for relocation due to its “large acreage in natural zoned with buffers from major highways, ranches, and lands outside the Seashore,” and clearly articulated that, “Tule elk will be allowed to roam outside the area as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.” It goes on to specify, “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. The Seashore should be prepared to provide funding for compensating property damage if necessary. 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 is restricted to the wilderness area around and south of Limantour, not extending into the Pastoral Zone but, without fencing, that is exactly where several elk have increasingly been turning up. Any possible impacts of relocating elk that have wandered out of the elk range back to the wilderness area have already been analyzed (in the context of “neighboring” private property), and the resulting document was a Finding of No Significant Impact. Hence there should be no need for additional NEPA review for returning the elk to their originally intended range in the wilderness area near Limantour, as such actions have already been determined to cause no significant impacts. Elk Fences Now.
Adapted from: "Point Reyes National Seashore and the Tule Elk: an Historical Background," Dr. Laura A. Watt - based on the presentation at the West Marin Chamber of Commerce’s Elk Forum in May 2014.
Dr. Laura A. Watt is an Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University, and is currently completing a book on the history of management at PRNS, to be published by the UC Press.
California tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) were once hunted to near extinction and in the late 1800s, but one lone herd of roughly ten elk was found on a private cattle ranch near Bakersfield in the 1890s. This small population remnant was protected and increased to about 400 elk by 1914.
Discussions about moving the elk to Point Reyes began around 1971 and both park staff and local citizens expressed concern that they might disrupt dairy and grazing operations on the peninsula. Because problems with elk in the agricultural area of the Central Valley were well known, State Fish and Game officials wanted to keep the elk to inside enclosures.