Elk Deaths Are National Park Service's Fault, Says Group

Tule elk in the Pierce Point herd | Photo: Chris Clarke

More than 250 native tule elk have died at Point Reyes National Seashore since 2012, and a wildlife protection group says fences are to blame.

At issue is the Pierce Point herd of tule elk, which roams the extreme northern extremity of the Point Reyes peninsula in western Marin County. The herd's numbers have fallen from 540 in the autumn of 2012 to 286 two years later. According to the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, that's because an elk-proof fence maintained at the urging of Point Reyes dairy farmers is keeping the elk away from sources of fresh water, and the animals are dying of thirst as a result.

The news comes as the Park Service considers a plan to install more elk-proof fencing elsewhere in Point Reyes National Seashore, which activists say could consign Point Reyes' other elk herds to the same thirsty fate.


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"Tule elk need room to roam, and native wildlife in our national park should not be fenced in or prevented from finding water and food," said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The loss of nearly half the Pierce Point elk herd highlights how important it is that the Park Service not cave to commercial ranchers who want free-roaming Point Reyes elk fenced in."

National Park Service representatives from Point Reyes were not available for comment.

Tule elk are a subspecies of elk, Cervus canadensis nannodes, found only in California. They were thought extinct in the early 20th Century until a small herd was found in western Kern County; today, 4,300 or so descendants of those elk have been transplanted throughout much of their former range. Elk were returned to Pierce Point in 1978, and to other parts of the National Seashore a decade later.

While elk confined to relatively arid Pierce Point have suffered badly from drought since 2012, free-ranging elk elsewhere in the Seashore have actually grown in numbers despite the drought. A herd that ranges near Limantour Beach grew from 94 to 120 elk in the same two years that saw the Pierce Point herd's decline, while the Drakes Beach elk herd grew from 66 to 92.

As part of a proposed Ranch Management Plan that would cover 28,000 acres of dairy and beef ranches in the Seashore and the nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Park Service is considering fencing in or removing other elk herds while extending grazing leases to a 20-year term. Miller charges that move would benefit ranchers at the expense of wildlife.

"The reintroduction of elk to the Point Reyes peninsula is a success story for conservation of native species, but the elk are in jeopardy of eviction to benefit a few lease holders," said Miller. "The Park Service already prioritizes commercial cattle grazing in Point Reyes. Now these subsidized ranchers want to dictate park policies that could eliminate native elk and harm predators and other wildlife."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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