Point Reyes National Seashore manages a fenced herd of tule elk at Tomales Point and two free-ranging herds in the Limantour and Drakes Beach areas. 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 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.
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.
In 2020, the herds stabilized or declined, likely due to poor forage quality from drought conditions.
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.
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.
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.
Park staff mapped water sources and monitored water conditions at Tomales Point on a regular basis during drought conditions this last year, confirming adequate water supplies were available to the elk in the many creeks, seeps, and springs distributed throughout the reserve. There is evidence that elk are aware of these water sources and visit them frequently. (Download the Tomales Point Water Sources Map. [1.8 MB PDF])
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
No, the tule elk at Tomales Point are not being considered as part of the ongoing General Management Plan Amendment, which addresses the active ranching areas in the park and the free-ranging tule elk in those regions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No. The 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan (10,680 KB PDF) recognized deficiencies and limitations in the resources available at Tomales Point, and identified natural regulation as the method of population management.
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.
Last updated: March 31, 2021