By Lee Foster
If you’re looking for a travel-excursion antidote to depressing environmental news, consider an outing to view the saved-from-extinction Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. Point Reyes is about an hour north of San Francisco.
The existence today of these elk is a tale about how a species went from near extinction to stable and survivable numbers. Above all, be prepared to enjoy a conservation success story. As a result, thank yourself, as a citizen taxpayer, for funding the good news outcome.
This magnificent species of elk, found only in California, came very close to extinction. Once plentiful, this “flagship” species, as the scientists label them, evolved in and created the grassland landscape for much of California. At the time of European contact and the Gold Rush, they numbered about 500,000 animals. Most noteworthy, Tule Elk roamed a huge territory from Bakersfield to Mt. Shasta, the Sierra to the coast.
The common name “tule” elk caught on for this animal (Cervus canadensis nannodes) because the elk flourished in the tall sedges, called “tules,” in the Central Valley of California.
The Brush With Extinction
After the Gold Rush, the expanding population harvested the Tule Elk as meat. Hunters slaughtered the elk and dropped their numbers down to a small count. Finally, many observers believed the Tule Elk were extinct by 1870. However, a small group of about 10 animals persisted on a ranch near Bakersfield owned by Henry Miller. He found these survivors in 1874. This conservation-minded rancher took charge of their fate, protected them, and allowed them to breed on his land. (Furthermore, one DNA report argues that all the subsequent elk came from a single, viable pair.)
Eventually the California Department of Fish and Game assumed responsibility for the long-term survival of the Tule Elk. The Department began establishing several herds throughout California. This dispersion would save the species should some local calamity occur. Tule Elk arrived at Point Reyes in 1978. Citizen taxpayers of California can take some pride in participating in the saving of this species. Tax payments fund the California Department of Fish and Game.
Today the species has increased to about 5,700 animals in 25 herds around California. The future of Tule Elk now appears stable and secure.
Seeing Tule Elk Guaranteed at Point Reyes
Any citizen wishing to experience this great conservation success story can see, with certainty, some of the 450 animals in the herd at Point Reyes National Seashore. The herd lives in a large, fenced area along Pierce Point Road at Tomales Point, north end of the park. I have seen Tule Elk here on every visit.
The Tule Elk are impressive all year, but especially in autumn and early winter. In that period the bulls have grown their huge annual antler racks, which they drop in winter. The dominant bulls pair up with perhaps 30 cows and perform their mating rituals.
I have not personally heard the autumn bull elk bugling, which they do to attract females. I will look forward to experiencing that on a future visit.
The hilliness and short grass of Point Reyes make it especially congenial for a visitor to spot the elk. You drive along the Pierce Point Road in your car and stop to watch the elk as you wish. Bring your binoculars.
The herds move, so you never know where they will appear. I have found the Tule Elk to be more docile and closer to the road in spring and summer. They seem more skittish in autumn, as the rut occurs and the males gather their harems.
The setting at Point Reyes inspires a traveler visually. You will likely see Tule Elk outlined against a blue sky at the top of a ridge or positioned with the azure beauty of the ocean behind them.
The Habitat at Point Reyes
The Tule Elk flourish at Point Reyes relatively free from predators that would spook them. Man is not seen as a predator. The Tule Elk will be wary of you, but they appear little stressed by humans.
Be sure to stop in at the excellent Visitor Center as you enter Point Reyes to procure a map of the park and a newspaper devoted to Tule Elk. Informative rangers will answer all your Tule Elk questions. The Visitor Center will alert you to the myriad nature joys at Point Reyes, which attracts three million visitors each year.
Managing Tule Elk in the context of modern California is not easy. Ongoing grazing-land controversies simmer between Point Reyes dairy ranchers, preserved as a cultural resource, and fans of Tule Elk, who would like to see this wild animal’s territory expanded.
If you want to experience an uplifting conservation success story, showing how we can save species rather than destroy them, consider a visit to become acquainted with the Tule Elk on Pierce Point Road at Point Reyes.
Information Sources: If You Go
National Park Service on Tule Elk at Point Reyes