The Curious Case of the Dead Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

Wildlife advocates and the National Park Service are at odds over a spike in elk mortality

By James Steinbauer

September 18, 2021

The Curious Case of the Dead Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

Illustrations by Simone Tieber

THEY CROSSED OVER THE CATTLE GRATE AFTER NIGHTFALL. A winter fog blew in from the Pacific, rolled over the rounded hills, and filled the steep canyons of the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve, at the northernmost tip of California's Point Reyes National Seashore. The mist concealed a band of covert activists. With their headlamps in night mode, they looked like red-eyed aliens hiking through the dark. "For the elk," one of them said, lugging a 50-gallon water trough from the back of a truck. "We're doing this for the elk." He disappeared into the chaparral.

About 200 yards off the main road that heads into the reserve, hidden behind a ridge, lies an old stock pond. Originally dug for cattle when Tomales Point was home to a dairy ranch, the pond for years had been a source of water for elk. But after the previous year's dry season, it was empty. The activists had come to execute an act of ecotage: bringing water to the elk. The leader of the group, Jack Gescheidt, told the others to place the trough to one side of the parched pond, behind a thicket of coyote brush, where he hoped elk would find it and park rangers would not.

The elk aren't getting the essential minerals and nutrients they need.

"It's as dry as Death Valley with cracked earth," he said. Gescheidt's hair is gray, but his eyes are boyish and his figure lean—the result of years spent trail running. He wore blue jeans and a dark-gray work jacket. A camo neckerchief covered the lower half of his face. Gescheidt is the founder of the TreeSpirit Project, a local environmental organization, and there was little doubt in his mind that the National Park Service was derelict in its duty to conserve the elk—indeed, it was sentencing them to death.

Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

In the months before that December 2020 night, wildlife advocates had documented 18 dead elk at the reserve. They confronted the Park Service with grisly photographs: a skeleton tangled in the dry grass, a decomposing elk with its snout in a muddy puddle.

The Park Service said that the deaths were due to the predictable ebb and flow of the herd based on the carrying capacity of its environment. "When you have an animal that has perished and its muzzle is in six inches of water, the first thing you are going to write off is dehydration," said David Press, the seashore's wildlife ecologist, regarding the photographs. "Throughout the summer, we provided pictures upon pictures of seeps and springs flowing with water. Why they don't believe us is beyond me."

   

Wildlife advocates argue that because the herd is contained behind a two-mile-long fence, the reserve is more like an open-air safari park, so the Park Service has a responsibility to supplement insufficient resources. "Something needs to be done," Olga Bolotina, chair of the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter, wrote in a spring letter to the Park Service. "The Park Service cannot enclose elk or other wildlife behind an eight-foot-tall, woven-wire fence without being responsible for their needs."

It's that rationale that drove Gescheidt and others to take matters into their own hands. "We had to try something," Gescheidt said in a video taken the night of the water delivery. "If bringing in water to elk is wrong, I don't want to be right."

The next day, the troughs were gone.

Three months later, in March, the Park Service revealed the number of elk that had died during 2020: 152, a third of the Tomales herd's total population. In a press release, the Park Service wrote that although the agency believed the die-off was drought related, there was "no evidence" that it was caused by dehydration.

 

That news left Gescheidt fuming. "I knew animals had died, but I was shocked that it was that many," he told me.

In April, Gescheidt and I stood looking at the same dry stock pond where he had tried to place the water trough. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. That the pond had been empty at the end of last summer was par for the course. That it was empty at the end of spring, when California's reservoirs, rivers, and streams should be at their fullest, was ominous.

"If the Park Service doesn't do something," Gescheidt said, "more animals are going to die."


ALTHOUGH TULE ELK are the smallest of the four subspecies of elk found in North America, when the first Europeans came to California, they were captivated by them. Exploring the North Coast in 1579, the English privateer Sir Francis Drake journaled how "infinite was the company of very large and fat Deere, which there we sawe by thousands." Biologists estimate that in 1850, there were around 500,000 tule elk in California. By the 1870s, they had been hunted to the point of extinction; less than 30 remained on a Central Valley ranch.

The herd's population starts to look like a heart monitor, each boom-bust cycle adding another beat.
Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

In 1971, the California legislature passed a bill to expand the statewide population of tule elk to 2,000. Later that year, Congress ordered the Department of Fish and Wildlife to form an interagency task force to compile a list of federal properties in California suitable for elk reintroduction. Dale McCullough, an expert on tule elk at the University of Michigan, put Point Reyes at the top of the list.

A little more than an hour's drive north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is Northern California distilled: Coastal mountains forested in Douglas firs catch the fog, rolling grasslands bloom with wildflowers, and white sandstone cliffs fall into the Pacific Ocean. It is also among a small number of sites in the national park system that allow cattle grazing. In the 1960s, after a campaign led by the Sierra Club spurred the Kennedy administration to preserve Point Reyes, the National Park Service bought the seashore piece by piece from the cattle ranchers and dairy families who lived there, under an agreement that they could rent the land and continue ranching.

The delicate balance between ranching and wildlife at Point Reyes made elk reintroduction tricky. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife insisted that any reserve be fenced. Otherwise, the elk would move onto nearby ranches and compete with cattle for water and forage.

   

The task force first considered the Limantour area, on the southern portion of the seashore. But John Sansing, the Point Reyes National Seashore superintendent at the time, decided that building the five-mile-long fence necessary to enclose the area would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, the Park Service set its sights on Tomales Point. McCullough, who had moved to the University of California, Berkeley, visited the point in spring 1973 and gave it a thumbs-up. "Forage conditions are excellent, with most of the land being covered with high-quality grasses and forbs," McCullough wrote to Sansing. He added, "Water is widely available."

In 1978, the Park Service transported 10 elk from the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley to the new 2,600-acre Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve. Almost immediately, the herd took off. Within a decade, it grew from 10 animals to 93. By 1990, it had surpassed the carrying capacity originally estimated for the reserve—140.

In 1992, in response to concerns about the herd's increasing population, the Park Service drafted an elk management plan. It proposed to keep the herd's population in check by shooting a certain number of elk each year and donating the meat to charity. In Defense of Animals, one of the main conservation organizations protesting the fence today, fought against the culling strategy, and the Park Service shelved the plan.

With the public outrage over culling in mind, the Park Service drafted a new management plan, which proposed a more hands-off approach. Instead of shooting the elk, the Park Service would let nature do the job. The herd would be allowed to thrive—and die—according to what the landscape could provide. Previous studies of forage at Tomales Point had estimated that in a drought year the reserve could support as many as 350 elk. By the time the management plan was finalized in 1998, the herd had grown to more than 550.

Wildlife advocates were well aware of the consequences of this hands-off approach. A 1993 scientific advisory panel had cautioned that one outcome of such a strategy would be periodic swings of population size. "We can reliably predict," the panel had written, "that if such a strategy is employed, the tule elk will seasonally be malnourished and appear less 'healthy' and that dead animals will become more evident."


AS YOU HEAD WEST toward Point Reyes on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, the signs are the first indication that you're entering controversial terrain. Affixed to fence posts, they appear one after the other: Let's Protect … Both Elk + Cow … Time to Build … Elk Fences Now.

I met Gescheidt one morning at a turnout just off Tomales Point Road overlooking historic M Ranch. The 1,200-acre beef operation was our first stop on a tour of what Gescheidt referred to as the "Point Reyes National Feedlot." In the distance, about 50 cattle grazed around a large stock pond. A pair of red-tailed hawks soared overhead.

"Can you tell that we're on public land?" Gescheidt asked, strumming a piece of barbed wire fence. "This isn't inviting. Technically I can go lie down in that field, but the ranchers don't want people to do that because they're working it—what I would call exploiting it. Cattle operations love fences. Fences are death. Fences are anti-wildlife. Fences prevent wildlife from reaching food and water."

Extending east behind us was a forest of bishop pine, a species endemic to Point Reyes that dominates the ridgeline. Gescheidt told me that the forest was a prime example of what Point Reyes should look like. Then, he turned back to the ranchland. "This entire vista is largely devoid of wildlife," he said. "John Muir used to write about sheep in the Sierra Nevada as 'hooved locust.' Well, I see cows as the new hooved locust."

He paused and scraped his shoe on the fence. "There is so much wrong with this park—so many polluted ranches—it's hard to stay focused."

I should disclose that Point Reyes is one of my favorite places on Earth. I fell in love with the seashore five years ago on a backpacking trip to Wildcat Camp—a bluff of coastal prairie with wide-open Pacific views on one side and fog-dripped Douglas fir forest on the other—and I've visited the seashore at least once a month since. I've hiked to the elements-battered tip of Tomales Point. I've wandered the trails of Limantour, a wilderness of rolling hills and open grasslands split with shallow estuaries. In March, I proposed to the love of my life at Chimney Rock.

I've never had a problem with the fact that Point Reyes is home to dairies and ranches. Of course, like all farms, they alter the land. Ranching operations in the seashore have mowed over nesting birds, polluted waterways with manure, and trampled the habitat of almost a dozen species listed under the Endangered Species Act. But compared with the almond orchards of the Central Valley or the concentrated animal feeding operations of Kansas or the corn monocultures of my native Ohio, the ranches at Point Reyes never seemed all that bad. When Gescheidt pointed to the pastureland and called it an ecological wasteland, I understood what he meant. But I also saw a field filled with purple lupine, neon-orange California poppy, pink checkerbloom, and Douglas iris.

Evicting the ranchers from Point Reyes is technically a legal option for the Park Service, and some environmental groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, are advocating for such a move. But whether it should be done is an ethical dilemma that won't be resolved anytime soon. Since its inception, Point Reyes has been a living laboratory for working through a great American problem: How do people with divergent values agree to manage a shared landscape? All of which explains how I came to find myself at a national seashore reporting a story about elk but looking at cows.

With its 1998 management plan, the Park Service reversed its previous decision and established a free-roaming herd in the Limantour area. Then, in a scenario that biologists never considered, several elk swam across the estuary that separates the wilderness from a handful of historic ranches and established a third herd. Today, that group of elk—called the Drakes Beach herd—is at the center of a new management plan that calls for culling to keep the herd's population at 140, which the Park Service says is the highest number that could share forage with cattle.

The management plan, which doesn't affect the Tomales Point reserve, will also extend cattle-grazing leases at Point Reyes from five years to 20. In April, Bob McClure, a fourth-generation rancher at the seashore, told the Marin Independent Journal that longer leases would give ranchers a sense of certainty. But the laws of geophysics are indifferent to lease terms. In May, McClure announced that he is closing his dairy, the oldest in the park and one of the closest to the elk reserve. The main reason, he told the Point Reyes Light, is the drought.


THE FEMALE ELK came down into McClure's Creek sometime near the end of September. If she had been looking for water, she would have found it. Photographs taken by the Park Service at the time show that the creek was flowing. She died anyway.

The next day, biologists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a field necropsy on the elk. Their report showed that she had died of poor nutrition. Although the biologists found "abundant moist forage" in her stomach, she displayed signs of severe muscle atrophy. After she had wandered into the valley to drink from the creek, she likely didn't have the strength to get back up.

Tissue samples sent to the University of California, Davis, showed that the elk was suffering from low levels of copper and selenium—deficiencies that can cause slow growth rates, muscle damage, and a decreased ability to fight off infection. "Alternatively," the veterinarians wrote, "the poor nutritional condition of the elk observed may also be indicative of a population at or near its carrying capacity."

The findings were similar to those from a half dozen other necropsies on Point Reyes elk performed by veterinarians in 2020. One elk, found in mid-December, had an incredibly low percentage of fat in its bone marrow—a sign that the elk was in the late stages of starvation. Toxicology reports show that another elk, which died near the end of October, was eating lupine and poison hemlock—a sign that the elk was desperate for greener forage.

"There is plenty to eat, in that there is plenty to ingest," said Press, the seashore's wildlife ecologist. "The problem is the quality of the forage. The elk aren't getting the essential minerals and nutrients they need to survive."

Wildlife advocates cite the seashore's two free-roaming herds as evidence that the elk fence contributed to the die-off at Tomales Point. While the Tomales Point herd lost a third of its number, the Limantour herd decreased by just nine. The Drakes Beach herd increased by one (although for the past five years, the herd has grown by 14 percent each year on average, so an increase of one isn't exactly a favorable outcome).

On the whole, wildlife advocates don't buy the "poor forage" argument. That the Park Service can blame drought conditions for the die-off and in the same breath claim that there's no evidence of a lack of water is, to paraphrase Gescheidt, complete cattle excrement. When I mentioned this to Press, he admitted that water did have something to do with it. "It's clear to me that water is the driver," he said. "But I'm not talking about drinking water. I'm talking about rainfall."

He said that good rainfall leads to good forage, and good forage leads to more elk. Then, when the seashore enters a drought and the forage quality declines, the herd outstrips the resources it needs. This boom-bust cycle has happened at least three times since the Tomales Point herd was established. Plotted on a graph, the herd's population starts to look like a heart monitor, each boom-bust cycle adding another beat. Above-average rainfall in 2012 led to the birth of more than 100 calves, bringing the Tomales Point herd's population to 540. Then, California entered one of the worst droughts in history. Over the next three years, almost half the herd died. The current "bust" stands to be the fourth in the herd's history. In the absence of a natural predator or population management, the cycle will continue.

"It's sort of a no-brainer," Press said. "Populations fluctuate as a result of environmental conditions. That's just basic wildlife ecology."


DID THE ELK DIE OF DEHYDRATION? No. Based on the necropsies and the Park Service's photographs of running water, wildlife advocates' conviction that the elk at Tomales Point died of dehydration just doesn't hold water.

Did the fence play a role? Undoubtedly. The herd may have overshot the Tomales Point carrying capacity, but the fact remains: That carrying capacity is only what it is because of the fence.

Was that part of the Park Service's management strategy? Sort of.

Should its management strategy change? Wildlife advocates certainly think so. And even Press is open to the idea. "I think it's OK to have the conversation about the elk fence," he told me. "I think it's time to revisit the elk management plan at Tomales Point. It's an old plan."

Still, it is not clear that tearing down the fence would answer wildlife advocates' immediate concern: dying elk. During a seven-year study in Šumava National Park, in the Czech Republic, scientists used GPS collars to record the movements of red deer, a member of the same genus as tule elk, Cervus. They found that 25 years after the Iron Curtain fell, deer didn't cross into areas of the park that used to be separated by fencing.

The elk at Tomales Point display the same sort of site fidelity. In the mid-1990s, biologists with the US Geological Survey found that the elk tended to gather in distinct subherds that hung out on four "home ranges," two in the southern part of the reserve, two at the northern end. Even during drought years, the elk show up in those same spots. What's more, there's no bunching near the southern end of the reserve. The elk aren't trying to bust past the fence. "If we take down the fence, elk will eventually spill out of the reserve," Press said. "But it won't happen overnight. And it may not happen quick enough to buffer the impacts of a drought year."

And what happens when the elk do eventually spill out? Imagine a scenario in which the fence is torn down, ranchers are evicted from the seashore, and the elk are allowed to roam free: Released from the reserve and bolstered with the good forage ranchers tended for decades, the elk population at Point Reyes could explode. According to the proposed management plan, there could be more than 40 square miles of potential elk habitat at Point Reyes. If you apply the existing carrying capacity of Tomales Point to the entire park (an admittedly imperfect comparison), you find that it could support almost 4,000 elk. And if that herd were to rocket past its new carrying capacity, there could be more than 6,500 elk roaming the seashore in a good year. The bigger the herd, the more dramatic the swing in population would appear when the next drought came. What would wildlife advocates say if a third of that herd—more than 2,000 elk—were to die?

In other words, we wouldn't be removing the fence so much as pushing it to the seashore's boundary—and kicking the conversation about conservation into the future. We can be sure the beef and dairy ranchers outside the seashore wouldn't tolerate the elk any more than the ranchers inside it do now. The difference is that the Park Service would have no jurisdiction past this new red line. Some sort of management within the seashore would be necessary.

The Park Service would probably have little choice but to start shooting the elk. Today, the idea of culling is enough to make wildlife advocates go mad. But in a ranch-free Point Reyes, would it really be worse than letting thousands of elk starve during a drought? However it may appear to wildlife advocates, such heavy-handed management isn't a matter of politics; it's a matter of ecology. The environmental implications of such a large herd surpassing the region's carrying capacity would be disastrous. The 1993 scientific advisory panel warned that a hands-off approach needed to be countered with culling if the Tomales Point herd grew too large; otherwise it would cause "excessive damage to the habitat and natural systems." Who's to say that the elk wouldn't overgraze the host plants or nectar sources for the endangered Myrtle's silverspot butterfly? Or that they wouldn't browse on endangered Tidestrom's lupine?

Neither of these outcomes are far-fetched. In the 1990s, elk at Yellowstone National Park overgrazed 99 percent of the park's aspen trees. The Park Service addressed Yellowstone's elk problem by reintroducing wolves. A similar option for Point Reyes would be to reintroduce the tule elk's historic predator—the grizzly bear. That's a beautiful vision, but it's unlikely. Humans would have to take over the predator's ecological role.

Environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert has characterized wildlife management in the Anthropocene as a choice not between what was and what is but between what is and what will be. In the case of the Point Reyes elk, it seems that before the fence comes down, wildlife advocates need to decide what they want: a managed herd and a healthy ecosystem or an unmanaged herd, elk die-offs, and an imperiled plant community. The way I see it, for wildlife advocates to choose the latter would be to betray their cause for a sentimental conceit.

"The unfortunate thing," Press said, "and the thing that seems to be lost on some people, is that elk management is just a reality in today's modern era of wildlife conservation."

 

AS THE DROUGHT INTENSIFIED in June, the Park Service began trucking water into the elk reserve. Wildlife advocates characterized the reversal as vindication after months of activism, but there's another, less-than-encouraging explanation: Wildlife managers have no clue how to handle the situation before them. Conservation in the epoch of climate change is something we're still trying to figure out, and the Park Service has conceded that its strategies will have to change as the planet warms.

In July, the Park Service requested a 60-day delay before finalizing the seashore’s new management plan. Wildlife advocates took it as a sign that Secretary Haaland’s Interior Department might be re-thinking the plan to shoot elk, but it was a brief reprieve: The Park Service signed the management plan in September. Conservation organizations have already promised to challenge it in court. Point Reyes is destined to remain a controversial landscape.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Protests and lawsuits are natural functions of our efforts to work through conservation dilemmas. Land management is a participatory endeavor, and conservation, like the species it seeks to protect, is ever evolving. At Point Reyes, we can witness that evolution. The seashore's history, defined by the struggle to accommodate both nature and culture, gives me reason to hope that we can negotiate a peace between those two forces, imperfect though it may be. Point Reyes can be a place to celebrate both human endeavors and wild lives—and all the connections in between.

This article appeared in the Fall quarterly edition with the headline "Down by the Seashore."

Take a Sierra Club trip to Point Reyes National Seashore. For details, see sc.org/outings.