Tule Elk at Tomales Point FAQ

Four elk congregate at a gray, plastic water trough surrounded by tall grass.
Four elk at a park-provided water trough in the Tule Elk Reserve on July 7, 2021.
 

As of October 4, 2021: The park installed a new supplemental water system and mineral lick on the north end of the Tomales Point Tule Elk Preserve at Avalis Beach, for a total of seven supplemental water systems at Tomales Point. The water trough at Avalis Beach is gravity fed by a pair of water tanks smaller than the others in the preserve because it is resupplied by boat on Tomales Bay.

As of September 24, 2021:The park installed three new supplemental water systems at the north end of the Tomales Point Tule Elk Preserve, in addition to the three established at the south end of the preserve earlier this year. This plan was developed in coordination with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

Point Reyes National Seashore and Marin County are in unprecedented drought conditions not observed in more than 140 years. The new water troughs are located at White Gulch, the Plateau, and Lower Pierce Ranch. Installation of an additional fourth new water source is anticipated near Avalis Beach. All water systems will remain in place until it is determined that the systems will not be needed in the summer of 2022 based on rainfall levels in the winter of 2021–2022. Water systems are being installed now based on monitoring of available water sources during the summer months, and has taken into consideration the impacts to wilderness and other resources impacted by these actions. Additionally, licks containing key supplemental minerals and nutrients have been placed near each water source to address copper and selenium deficiencies well documented throughout the Point Reyes peninsula. Short-term supplementation of trace minerals may improve conditions for tule elk during this particularly nutrient-stressed time.

Please help maintain conditions for the tule elk to use water troughs and mineral licks by not approaching these areas when visiting or hiking at Tomales Point. Continue to check this page for updated information.

As of June 11, 2021: Point Reyes National Seashore is providing supplemental water to the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve at Point Reyes National Seashore in response to unprecedented drought conditions. Although some natural water sources continue to be available, these sources may dry if this year becomes the worst drought on record for Marin County as expected. Marin County declared a drought emergency mid-May with the lowest recorded rainfall during the last 16 months in more than 140 years recorded by the Marin Municipal Water District.

As of March 30, 2021: The population of the three herds at the park stabilized or declined in 2020. Investigations of dead elk, observations of living elk, and range assessments conducted by park staff in coordination and consultation with wildlife managers and veterinarians from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) suggest poor forage quality is the underlying cause of these population changes. Although the National Park Service (NPS) and CDFW believe the elk population declines are drought-related, there is no evidence that the population decline is due to dehydration or a lack of water. Annual elk census counts were completed in March 2021.

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Are the tule elk at Tomales Point dying of thirst due to a lack of access to adequate water?
No. Although the elk population declines at Tomales Point are drought-related, there is no evidence the herd decline is due to dehydration and a lack of water. As of June 11, 2021, the National Park Service is providing supplementary water to Tomales Point in response to current conditions observed during this unprecedented drought. Although some natural water sources continue to be available, these sources may dry if this year becomes the worst drought on record for Marin County as expected. Marin County declared a drought emergency mid-May with the lowest rainfall during the last 16 months in more than 140 years recorded by the Marin Municipal Water District.

 

What water sources are available to the elk at Tomales Point?

During normal water years, ponds, seeps, springs, and seasonal streams make up the available water sources at Tomales Point. Six manmade stock ponds, or impoundments, developed during Tomales Point's historic ranching era, occur on the peninsula. Seeps and springs are scattered across the landscape and may be accessed by tule elk. Streams typically flow during the wet season and into spring or summer, depending on the year. In addition, the reserve receives significant moisture in the form of summer fog and condensation during the dry season. In 2021, however, during this unprecedented drought, many reliable seeps and springs have gone dry. Here is a timeline of the actions the NPS has taken:

As of September 24, 2021: The park has placed three additional gravity-fed 250-gallon water troughs at the north end of the Tomales Point. This brings the total number of water troughs to six in the area. All water troughs will remain in place at least until rains return next winter, but perhaps for longer based on 2021–2022 rainfall levels. Please see the June update below for details on the water troughs, tanks, and water sources.

June 2021: The park placed three gravity-fed 250-gallon water troughs at the south end of the Tomales Point reserve based on areas of elk activity and adjacent to established water sources. The water troughs are fed by 2000+-gallon tanks located along Pierce Point Road, and will stay in place at least until rains return next winter. Water troughs have float valves to maintain constant water levels and escape ramps to prevent accidental drowning of smaller wildlife. Water will be supplied from water systems within and possibly outside of the park.

March 2021: Park staff mapped water sources and monitored water conditions at Tomales Point on a regular basis during drought conditions in 2020, confirming adequate water supplies were available to the elk in the many creeks, seeps, and springs distributed throughout the reserve at the time. There is evidence that elk were aware of these water sources and visit them frequently. (Download the Tomales Point Water Sources Map. [1.8 MB PDF])

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Did the NPS provide supplemental water to the tule elk at Tomales Point before June 2021?
No. Regular monitoring of the available water sources for the elk determined that water was in sufficient supply and that there was no need to provide supplemental water for the elk.

 

Why is the NPS providing supplemental water to the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve now?
Although some natural water sources continue to be available, these sources may dry if this year becomes the worst drought on record for Marin County as expected. Some seeps and springs that served as reliable sources of water throughout the 2020 dry season have already gone dry in 2021. Marin County declared a drought emergency mid-May with the lowest recorded rainfall during the last 16 months in more than than 140 years recorded by the Marin Municipal Water District. The NPS has placed water troughs in areas of known elk activity and adjacent to established water sources, and water troughs have escape ramps to prevent accidental drowning of smaller wildlife. In planning for this project, Point Reyes ensured that rare plants and archaeological resources were not disturbed during the set-up of the temporary water systems. Water troughs were placed outside of Congressionally-designated wilderness. Lastly, in order to protect the health of the elk and other wildlife, the troughs and tanks were delivered clean and the the water is from a known source in order to prevent the spread of disease and contaminants.

 

Why were supplemental water sources placed by elk advocates at Tomales Point removed by the NPS?
Elk advocates did not work with Point Reyes National Seashore in delivering water and did not take precautions described above. Water sources placed by elk advocates at Tomales Point were placed in locations where elk would not typically seek water and did not have escape ramps to avoid accidental drowning by smaller wildlife. The sources of the water and the prior use of water containers was unknown. Some water troughs and other containers were placed in designated wilderness.

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Does the NPS anticipate providing supplemental forage to prevent elk population declines?
No, not at this time. Providing supplemental forage can create issues with habituation by the elk, may be mostly consumed by the socially dominant elk, and has the potential to spread invasive weed seeds into the landscape. We also do not want to artificially support a herd of elk that is greater than what the landscape can naturally support. Instead, mineral licks containing key nutrients have been placed near each water source to address copper and selenium deficiencies well documented throughout the Point Reyes peninsula. Short-term supplementation of trace minerals may improve conditions for tule elk during this particularly nutrient-stressed time.

 

How many tule elk herds are there at Point Reyes National Seashore?
Point Reyes National Seashore has three distinct herds of tule elk in the park, a fenced herd at Tomales Point and two free-ranging herds in the Limantour and Drakes Beach areas.

 

What are the population trends over the last year in the three herds of tule elk?
In 2020, the herds stabilized or declined, likely due to poor forage quality from drought conditions.

 

Did the number of tule elk in the Tomales Point herd decline in 2020?
Yes. The herd of tule elk at Tomales Point declined from 445 to 293 individuals. Investigations of dead elk, observations of living elk, and range assessments conducted by park staff in coordination and consultation with wildlife managers and veterinarians from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife suggest overpopulation and poor forage quality are the underlying causes of the decline.

 

What about the Limantour and Drakes Beach herds?
Over the last year, the population of the free-ranging Limantour herd declined from 164 to 155 individuals and the Drakes Beach herd stabilized and increased by one from 138 to 139 individuals. In the prior three years, the Drakes Beach herd has otherwise increased by an average of 14% per year. These census results, along with necropsies, observations of living elk, and range conditions suggest poor forage quality caused by drought conditions are parkwide.

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What is the predicted population carrying capacity of tule elk at Tomales Point?
The range carrying capacity for tule elk at Tomales Point is estimated at 350 individuals (1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment - 10,680 KB PDF). Favorable conditions in 2018–2019 allowed the elk population to expand beyond the carrying capacity, followed by drought conditions in 2020 and a subsequent population decline.

 

Is there a management plan for the tule elk herd at Tomales Point?
Yes. The management of elk at Tomales Point is guided by the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment (EA) (10,680 KB PDF). The EA directs the National Park Service to manage tule elk at Tomales Point using minimal intrusion to regulate population size, as a part of natural ecosystem processes. Additionally, the EA predicts a series of modulated swings of population growth and decline in this herd, a process called natural or self-regulation. The decline in the number of elk at Tomales Point this year and in the past, along with subsequent increases, are within normal and predicted population fluctuations.

 

Why does the NPS & California Department of Fish and Wildlife believe the herd decline at Tomales Point is due to poor nutrition?
Although there is no evidence of overgrazing or browse lines at Tomales Point which would suggest a limitation of forage quantity, both necropsies and observations of live elk indicate depletion of fat reserves and emaciation, suggesting inadequate forage quality. The nutritional quality of forage is likely exacerbated by ongoing drought conditions.

 

Has the herd at Tomales Point had similar populations declines in the herd in the past?
Yes, a similar decline in the elk herd at Tomales Point happened in the previous 2013–2015 drought when the population decreased from 540 to 283 individuals over a two-year period. Over the past 25 years, the Tomales Point elk population has fluctuated between approximately 280 and 550 individuals. The population of this herd tends to increase incrementally during favorable conditions, with the population expanding beyond carrying capacity of 350 individuals, followed by less favorable conditions and subsequent population declines. Download a line chart showing the annual population of tule elk on Tomales Point from 1978 to 2020. (73 KB PDF)

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Did the tule elk at Tomales Point die of thirst in the previous 2013–2015 drought?
No. Although the elk population declines at Tomales Point are drought-related, there is no evidence that the 2013–2015 herd decline was due to dehydration and a lack of water. Overpopulation and poor nutritional quality of forage likely contributed to the decline observed in the 2013–2015 drought.

 

Do the cattle stock ponds at Tomales Point dry out every year in the summer?
Yes, most of the man-made cattle stock ponds at Tomales Point dry out on a yearly basis, creating the impression of a lack of water. Although most of the ponds dry out, other sources of water in the many creeks, seeps, and springs distributed throughout the reserve remain viable throughout the year.

 

How does the National Park Service monitor tule elk population levels at the park?
Point Reyes National Seashore wildlife staff conduct annual elk census counts of the tule elk herds over the winter months. The 2020 surveys were completed in March 2021.

 

Is the National Park Service considering removing the fence at Tomales Point?
No. The 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan (10,680 KB PDF) specifically directs the National Park Service to maintain the elk fence at Tomales Point.

 

Is tule elk management at Tomales Point a topic of the General Management Plan Amendment for Point Reyes National Seashore, completed in September 2021?
No. Tomales Point, and the tule elk that reside there, are not within the planning area of the General Management Plan Amendment, which addresses the active ranching areas in the park and the free-ranging tule elk in those regions.

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Is the population decline at Tomales Point due to herd mortality or a reduced number of new calves?
Both. Declines in the Tomales Point elk population are attributed to increased death rates and decreased birth rates. In addition to the mortality of old, young, and elk with preexisting conditions, female elk are less likely to produce offspring during stressed resource conditions. Both of these factors lead to a lower population count.

 

Were necropsies conducted on tule elk from these herds?
Yes. Six elk carcasses were collected and sent to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory for necropsy from both the Tomales Point and the Drakes Beach herds.

 

What primary findings are documented in these recent elk necropsy reports?
All six necropsied elk were extremely emaciated with no remaining fat reserves. All elk were also chronically deficient in copper and selenium. Two elk consumed toxic plants, either lupine and/or poison hemlock. Two elk had heavy internal parasite loads. One elk was consumed by systemic infection. None of the elk tested positive for any diseases, including Johne's disease. There was no evidence of death by dehydration.

 

Are there population declines of other park wildlife due to drought conditions & reduced forage?
The populations of other wildlife species, such as small mammals, coyote, bobcat, and black-tailed deer, are not monitored annually. If monitored, the National Park Service would anticipate population declines in other species during recent drought conditions. The population of tule elk within Point Reyes National Seashore has been carefully monitored with annual census counts since their reintroduction in 1978.

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Last updated: October 7, 2021

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