We have developed the following questions and answers in response to recent inquiries about the tule elk at Tomales Point within Point Reyes National Seashore, and share your concerns. While it is a natural phenomenon for wildlife populations to rise and fall with environmental conditions, extreme drought conditions can certainly exacerbate population responses. The National Park Service (NPS) is monitoring water availability and will provide supplemental water to the elk this fall if it is needed.
What is the water status at Tomales Point as of early January 2021?
NPS staff continued to monitor water sources at Tomales Point up to and beyond the first real rainstorm of the season in November 2020. Currently, in early January 2021, more than three inches of rain have fallen on the outer Point Reyes Peninsula this season. Ponds at Tomales Point that went dry last summer have begun to fill back up again. During the previous dry months, NPS surveys confirmed that adequate water supplies were available for the tule elk in the many creeks, seeps, and springs distributed throughout Tomales Point. The photos below are of two ponds in the southern part of the reserve, and also depict new growth of forbs and grasses that serve as good forage for the elk.
In the last few months, carcasses collected and sent to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory for necropsy from both the Tomales Point and the Drakes Beach elk herds reveal that inadequate forage likely impacted the elk herds rather than the availability of water.
Park wildlife staff began surveying available water sources at Tomales Point in late August with widespread and more focused efforts in early September of 2020. Visit our Tomales Point Water Sources Photo Gallery page for survey results and photographs of available water sources.
What was the water status at Tomales Point as of mid-October 2020?
Brown grass and a dry pond near the road above Pierce Ranch might give you the impression that tule elk can't get enough water during California's dry season.
But looks can be deceiving.
Tucked in the rushes just behind this dry pond, the spring feeding the pond has standing pools of water with fresh elk tracks (Figure 1). A few hundred yards from there, another seep down in the willows has water oozing out of the ground. A wildlife camera shows tule elk and other animals drinking there regularly. The creek down to McClure’s Beach is flowing well (Figure 2) with heavy and recent elk trailing leading down to this water source. If you hike three miles out on the Tomales Point trail, you'll see a large pond with plenty of water for the tule elk herd in that area.
We have been monitoring the water conditions at Tomales Point since late July and will continue to do so until the winter rains arrive. If the elk need more water later this year, we'll install a water trough at a location where they already look for water.
Park wildlife staff began surveying available water sources at Tomales Point in late August with widespread and more focused efforts in early September of 2020 and continued monitoring through the middle of October. Figure 3 below shows the location of water sources on Tomales Point as of September 2020. Visit our Tomales Point Water Sources Photo Gallery page for survey results and photographs of available water sources.
How does the National Park Service monitor tule elk population levels at Tomales Point?
Point Reyes National Seashore wildlife staff conduct an annual elk census every fall at Tomales Point.
Has the elk population at Tomales Point experienced population fluxes in the past?
Yes. After an initial growth period, the elk population at Tomales Point has fluctuated up and down since 1998, ranging from approximately 300 to 550 animals (Figure 4). At the end of 2019, we counted 445 elk at Tomales Point.
Was the 2013–2015 population decline at Tomales Point a result of the California drought?
Although no studies have been done, the drought likely contributed to this decline in the tule elk population at Tomales Point. Extreme drought conditions resulted in a reduction of available water and contributed to poor forage conditions during the dry summer and fall months. If there was truly no water at all available to the elk at this time, then all the elk would have perished. A more likely regulating factor is the nutritional quality of the forage during drought conditions rather than the availability of water. In addition, due to the natural soil conditions on the Point Reyes peninsula, each of the elk herds at Point Reyes are known to be chronically deficient in both copper and selenium, which would be even less available through their forage during drought conditions.
Was the population decline a result of elk mortality or reduced calving rates?
Both. Declines in population are due to a combination in factors including reduced birth rate and increased death rates. During the 2013–2015 decline at Tomales Point, the calving rate was low. In 2012 there were 101 elk calves, while in 2014 there were 23 calves—the lowest calf count on record.
Is there a management plan guiding park policies for tule elk at Tomales Point?
The 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment (EA) (10,680 KB PDF) guides the management of elk at Tomales Point. The EA was informed by a scientific panel of elk experts from the western US. The EA specifically notes the limited resources available to tule elk at Tomales Point and discusses a potential carrying capacity. A goal of the EA is to "manage tule elk using minimal intrusion to regulate population size, where possible, as part of natural ecosystem processes." The EA notes that "large mammalian herbivores in a restricted reserve may grow to a number that exceeds the ability of the habitat to sustain them" and "may lead to a series of modulated swings of population growth and decline, a process that has been called 'natural or self-regulation.'"
What does the 1998 Tule Elk EA say about the water sources at Tomales Point?
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. The 1998 EA notes that, "The water impoundments are a factor in determining the ability of the elk range to support its population. While clearly an artificial construction, caution should be taken to ensure that any alteration of artificial water sources does not impact other species of special concern. Otherwise, a return of the elk range to its native condition of seep-fed springs is considered desirable to maintaining viable populations." The 1998 EA does not prescribe the addition of supplemental water, or food, during drought conditions.
What contingencies has the National Park considered to ensure water remains available for the elk at Tomales Point?
Park staff are monitoring the water sources and tule elk at Tomales Point on a regular basis. Conditions at this time indicate that adequate water is available. If the seeps/spings currently being monitored in the southern portion of the range do go dry, the NPS will provide water to the elk by placing a trough in a location where the elk are already accustomed to finding water. Providing water in a trough is preferred over adding water to any dry ponds that occur within the reserve, partly because most added water would just drain into the dry soil initially. In addition, at least two of the ponds are known locations for the federally-threatened California red-legged frog, which may be harmed by adding treated water. Ponds that go dry during part of the year cannot be invaded by American bullfrogs which are detrimental to California red-legged frog populations. Lastly, the northern section of the reserve does not have any roads, is within the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area and therefore cannot be accessed by vehicles.
Does the Tomales Point fence prevent tule elk from finding water outside of the reserve?
During the course of the 2013–2015 drought, we did not observe tule elk using the southern portion of Tomales Point more extensively or congregating along the fence line. The same is true in 2020. Elk tend to closely remain within their home ranges, and we observed elk distributed across Tomales Point in the usual places during our surveys, indicating that the elk had the necessary resources (forage and water) needed within their occupied areas. We have no evidence of elk trying to leave Tomales Point in search of water.
Is the National Park Service considering removing the fence at Tomales Point?
No. The 1998 EA specifically directs the National Park Service to maintain the elk fence at Tomales Point.
Is management of the tule elk herd at Tomales Point being considered as part of the General Management Plan Amendment?
No. The General Management Plan Amendment (GMPA) will assess concerns raised by ranchers and the public related to the free-ranging tule elk and their impact on ranch operations from the Drakes Beach and Limantour herds, two free-ranging herds that occur in separate areas of the park.
How does the National Park Service interface with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in the management of tule elk at Point Reyes?
The NPS and CDFW have a long, collaborative and ongoing relationship regarding tule elk at Point Reyes. The State of California provided the initial elk re-introduced to Tomales Point in 1978, and state wildlife biologists were integral members of the team that managed the re-introduction and subsequent monitoring. The CDFW provided guidance and was a key contributor to the 1998 EA. The NPS regularly shares tule elk population data and management issues with CDFW, which have been incorporated into the CDFW's 2018 California Statewide Elk Management Plan. The CDFW has provided guidance on a Johne's disease testing program for the free-range elk, assisted in the field with the experimental re-location of three juvenile elk from the Drakes Beach area to Limantour in 2015, and has provided guidance and comments to our GMPA planning efforts. The CDFW has been contacted in regard to the 2020 water conditions at Tomales Point and concur with our strategy of continued monitoring and intervention if needed.
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