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. This year, conditions at Tomales Point appear more favorable than they were a year ago: heavy rains in December recharged the ponds, seeps, springs and streams, and the vegetation growth is robust. The NPS is monitoring water availability and is developing a plan to make water available this summer or fall if it is needed.
What is the water status at Tomales Point as of late July 2015? 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.
A few hundred yards from there, a seep 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 running. And another pond has standing water less than three-quarters of a mile away.
Even the dry pond near the road hasn't dried up completely. The spring feeding the pond has muddy standing water with fresh elk tracks.
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 will continue to closely monitor water conditions at Tomales Point until the winter rains arrive. If the elk need more water later this year, we'll install a water trough where they already look for water.
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 350 to 550 animals (Figure 1).
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.
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 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.'"
Is the population decline at Tomales Point a result of the ongoing California drought?
Although no studies have been done, the drought has likely contributed to the recent decline in the tule elk population at Tomales Point. Extreme drought conditions have resulted in a reduction of available water, as well as contributing to poor forage conditions during the dry summer and fall months.
Is 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. In the recent 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.
What water sources are available to the tule elk at Tomales Point?
Ponds, seeps, springs, and seasonal streams make up the available water sources at Tomales Point. Eight manmade stock ponds, developed during Tomales Point’s historic ranching era, are scattered across the peninsula, and are typical source of year-round water. Seeps and springs are scattered across the landscape and may be accessed by tule elk. Seasonal streams typically flow during the wet season and into spring or summer, depending on the year.
What will the National Park Service do if the stock ponds dry up this year in the later summer/fall?
Park staff are monitoring tule elk at Tomales Point on a weekly basis. Conditions at the point appear more favorable than a year ago: heavy rains in December recharged the ponds, seeps, springs and streams, and the vegetation growth is robust. Point Reyes National Seashore is developing a plan to make water available this summer or fall if needed.
Does the Tomales Point fence prevent tule elk from finding water outside of the reserve?
During the course of the drought over the last two years, we did not observe tule elk using the southern portion of Tomales Point more extensively or congregating along the fence line. Elk tend to closely remain within their home ranges, and we observed elk distributed across Tomales Point in the usual places during our surveys. We have no evidence of elk trying to leave Tomales Point in search of water. At least one pond, in the northern portion of Tomales Point, has had water year-round through the drought.
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.
Do tule elk live in other parts of the seashore?
Yes. One goal of the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan (10,680 KB PDF) was to establish a free-ranging tule elk herd in the seashore.
In 1999, we established a free-range herd of 28 elk from the in wilderness area near Limantour Beach from elk moved from Tomales Point. Within weeks, a few of them unexpectedly migrated to ranches near Drakes Beach. Now the Drakes Beach or D Ranch herd includes approximately 100 tule elk.
Some of the males from the Limantour herd (about 120 tule elk) also migrated into ranches northeast of Drakes Estero.
Why did the tule elk population increase in the rest of the seashore?
At low population numbers, the free-range elk are below their natural limit or carrying capacity for the areas in which they reside. The availability of essential resources, such as forage and water, is not yet limiting their population growth.
Is management of the tule elk herd at Tomales Point being considered as part of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan?
No. The Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan (Ranch CMP) will assess concerns raised by ranchers and the public related to the free-ranging tule elk and their impact on ranch operations in the D and Home Ranch areas of the park.
How can I participate in the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan?
There are many opportunities to get involved in the Ranch CMP. Check out the park's extensive web pages for detailed information including the project timeline, initial public scoping and public comments, background information, and Ranch CMP updates. We anticipate releasing the plan, including a public comment period, this upcoming winter (winter 2015–2016). We invite your participation in this process.
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. 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 has been incorporated into their draft California Statewide Elk Management Plan. More recently, the NPS is working with CDFW in the development of management alternatives for free-range elk within the pastoral zone of the park. CDFW staff has attended internal and public meetings, and met with several park ranchers regarding the issue. In 2014, CDFW provided guidance on a Johne's disease testing program for the free-range elk and assisted in the field with the experimental re-location of three juvenile elk from the Drakes Beach Road area to Limantour.
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