By Daria Syskine
A Land Before Time
Picture the San Francisco Bay Area before the first Spanish explorers. It would still be mostly recognizable, though coastline development would be replaced by expansive tidal marshes, and the golden hills rimming the valley would be green with native, drought-adapted bunchgrasses.
What would really look different would be the animals. Think grizzly bears lumbering through Rancho San Antonio’s chaparral thickets. Think California condors soaring high above where MVHS now stands. Think pronghorn antelopes occupying the slopes along highway 280 now occupied by cows.
And think tule elk. The tule elk, Cervus elaphus nannodes, is a subspecies of elk endemic to California, found here and nowhere else. They look a little like oversized deer – bull elk weigh up to 800 pounds – except for the ruff of longer fur around their neck.
As the name implies, the tule elk’s historic range included a wide swath of coastline, including the tule marshes that used to fringe the Bay Area. But they’re adaptable animals; their range was bordered on the south by the Tehachapi mountains, near present-day Bakersfield, and to the north by the present-day Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Anyways, back to the Bay Area. What would tule elk have been doing here?
Eating, quite likely, and trying to avoid being eaten. As herbivores, they played a key role in local ecosystems such as oak savannas by eating native herbs, sedges (like tule reeds), and grasses; grizzly bears and mountain lions kept the tule elk population under control. The predators kept the tule elk from destroying the grasslands, while the elk’s constant munching prevented the overgrowth of coastal prairies and other grasslands by shrubs and trees.
Julie Phillips, a tule elk biologist and instructor in nature-based teaching, summarized this relationship. Tule elk and their habitats – the surrounding plants and wildlife – “all evolved over geologic time together,” she said. “And so tule elk are extremely important for those native habitats.”
Native Americans encountered tule elk long before the first Spanish explorers set foot in California. Though tule elk were hunted for their meat, hides, and bones, they weren’t a major part of the Native American diet, and their populations remained steady. Judging by the notes and journal entries of Spanish explorers, there were approximately 500,000 tule elk across the entire state in 1769.
That all changed when Europeans arrived. For a start, the first settlers brought in livestock like cows and sheep, meaning that there was simply less pasture available for tule elk. Some tule elk were also hunted throughout the century. Then, during the Gold Rush, California’s population grew exponentially; as people moved in, transforming grasslands and marshlands into agricultural fields, tule elk were forced out.
A century after the first Europeans arrived, there were ten or fewer breeding pairs left in all of California.
A Success Story?
In short, things looked pretty grim for the tule elk in 1874. That’s when a man by the name of Henry Miller, owner of the Miller-Lux Ranch in California, discovered a small herd of tule elk on his property in Kern County.
Miller ordered his ranch hands to protect the tule elk, and the population grew from a genetic bottleneck of fewer than ten elk to a thriving herd of 400. In fact, the tule elk were doing a little too well. In a conflict that continues to this day, the tule elk were beginning to damage the property on Miller’s cattle ranch: ruining pasture intended for cows, overrunning fences, and otherwise creating a nuisance.
The US Biological Survey eventually relocated the tule elk to locations from Balboa Park in San Diego to Yosemite National Park, with limited success. In those places where relocation was successful, the tule elk began munching on homeowner’s gardens; in other places, the herds had to be supplemented with alfalfa. Fortunately, later efforts at relocation proved more successful, aided by new corralling techniques and a better understanding of tule elk ecology.
The tule elk population has now reached a population of about 4,000 in 22 locations throughout California. For a subspecies that was ten or fewer breeding pairs away from extinction, the tule elk has done very well for itself – so far.
Scene: Point Reyes National Seashore
However, not everyone’s happy about the tule elk’s recovery. As Henry Miller had discovered by 1914, tule elk are adapted to open grazing environments. And what better open grazing environment than a farmer’s lush, well-irrigated alfalfa field or cow pasture?
The relocation efforts only increased the range of the conflict. It seems that almost everywhere they were introduced, tule elk gravitated not towards their ‘natural’ habitat of open oak savanna, but to agricultural fields – much to the consternation of farmers.
This problem continues to this day, pitting environmentalists and national park agencies against modern-day ranchers and farmers. Point Reyes, just north of the Bay Area, provides a fascinating case study of the dynamics of this conflict.
Historically, Point Reyes was well within the natural habitat of the tule elk. However, as in other areas of California, ranchers in the 1850s began bringing in dairy cattle to graze on the coastal plains of the park, whose climate was ideal for the dairy industry.
Yet in the latter half of the 20th century, Marin County’s dairy ranches were facing a financial crisis. To ensure their preservation, ranchers united with the local Sierra Club. They succeeded in 1962 with the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore; the ranches were all eventually acquired by the National Park Service and leased out to ranchers. Today, some of those ranches continue to operate, mostly as organic beef or dairy producers.
The Fault in Our Elk
Tule elk were first introduced at Point Reyes in 1978. The population increased quickly; the captive herd at Tomales Point was soon joined by a free-roaming herd. By the late 1990s, tule elk began to impact ranch properties – another manifestation of the same conflict that had plagued Henry Miller’s ranch a century ago. The elk made holes in fences; damaged irrigation systems; ate the cow’s expensive, organic-certified hay; and gored at least three cows.
So far, the National Park Service’s attempts to resolve the conflict between ranches and tule elk have proven unsuccessful. Ranchers and local conservationists argue that the free-roaming tule elk should be relocated to the original, fenced area, that ranchers should be permitted to diversify in their production, and that rancher’s leases on the land be lengthened.
Nichola Spaletta, of the Spaletta Ranch in Point Reyes, explained in an e-mail that “[i]t is very hard for a small scale organic, grazing, fifth generation dairy farm […] to have 110 elk in their dairy cattle pastures. The elk are not in their natural area and these elk were not a part of the Point Reyes National Seashore land agreement in 1972.”
Others also assert that allowing their cattle to graze where tule elk now roam will reduce the amount of invasive plants, and the likelihood of fires.
At the core, ranchers worry that continuing conflicts with the tule elk will inhibit their ability to continue functioning, and that the National Park Service is no longer protecting the ranches as historical landmarks.
Phillips, along with other environmentalists such as those at the Center for Biological Diversity, disagrees on several counts with the ranchers, especially when it comes to tule elk ecology. “[I]nstead of grazing the lands to protect them from fire or whatever with cattle, let’s use elk,” she said. “We’ve found an area down at Pacheco State Park, where the elk are allowed into certain areas of the park and cattle are not, and in those areas where there’s no cattle grazing and only native elk – all the oaks are coming back. They’re regenerating. And the native grasses are coming back.”
She also questions the assumption that tule elk are in competition with the rancher’s cattle. After all, historically, Point Reyes was part of the tule elk’s range; dairy ranchers have been there since the 1850s, but tule elk had lived there for centuries. Plus, tule elk currently have a much smaller range than cattle.
From that perspective, “in public land […] the cattle are competing with the elk […] the elk should be there first,” Phillips said. “There’s millions and millions of acres in CA and in the whole western US where you can see cattle ranching. It doesn’t seem like [it should be] a priority any more for a national park.”
That’s the question that’s really at the core of the debate: is the mission of Point Reyes to preserve agriculture’s anthropogenic history through the dairy ranches, or to preserve California’s natural history through the tule elk?
The one thing on which both ranchers and environmentalists agree is that there needs to be a new management plan for tule elk. However, whether that management plan will involve restricting tule elk populations or expanding their ranges through restoration ecology remains to be seen.
For Phillips, the ideal management plan reaches beyond Point Reyes National Seashore. She envisions a future where elk hunting no longer takes place, and where the protection of free-roaming elks – not cattle operations – take precedence.
And, most importantly, she envisions a future where the tule elk’s currently fragmented habitat is connected by bands of native wilderness, such as a proposed pathway through the Coyote Valley between the Diablo Range and Santa Cruz mountains. Not only would the elk provide the impetus to create these pathways, she explained, but they will help to restore that native habitat for other wildlife.
“[I]t’s going to take quite a visionary to see this, because there’s a lot of people who disagree with what I’m saying. But from an ecological perspective, if we really believe what we’re teaching in our schools – if we really believe what we stand for when we teach conservation biology and restoration ecology – this should be the forefront of what we’re doing.”
Elk have personal value for Phillips, too. She grew up in the ‘70s, when girls at her high school weren’t yet allowed to play sports. Then, at San Jose State University, Phillips encountered Dr. Michael Kutilek: a progressive graduate professor who recommended that she take on tule elk as her graduate project, despite the fact that “women weren’t thought of as – in those years – as tracking elk.”
That research allowed her to finally overcame years of being told what she could and couldn’t do with her life. “[T]o be able to have visionaries that said women should be out in the field tracking elk was like, for me, a freeing experience. It was just totally wonderful. So the tule elk became this incredible life journey for myself, my husband, my family.”
Tule elk are a part of California’s natural heritage. It’s up to us to decide what we’ll do with that heritage – whether we will preserve the tule elk, or watch as they slowly sink back into extinction. Today, they face threats from ranchers that resent tule elk’s intrusions on their property; from both poachers and legal hunters; from drought, Johnson’s disease, habitat fragmentation; and, critically, from the severe genetic bottleneck that they went through more than a century ago.
Yet, on the whole, Phillips seemed hopeful when speaking about the future of the tule elk, and emphasized that we, as citizens of California, still have agency in determining that future.
“I think it’s going to be students, myself, and leaders that love the environment that will have to rise up and say, this is the public good,” she said. “[I]t’s time now to protect the elk on a bigger level.”