Loyalty – Earth
Tule Elk, Point Reyes National Seashore, California
egg tempera, 6 x 8 inches
Today tule elk inhabit the grassy hills of the California coast at Point Reyes, where the lines between earth, air and water are often blurred by the ubiquitous fog. Tule elk are endemic to California, meaning they are found only there. They are one of two subspecies of elk native to California.
Elk herds were abundant in the early 1800’s, roaming freely through open grasslands. By 1860, tule elk were gone from Point Reyes and by 1870 were thought to be extinct primarily due to uncontrolled hunting and displacement. Their natural habitat was being converted to agriculture and cattle ranching. In 1874 a cattle rancher named Henry Miller discovered a small, isolated group of elk on his ranch. He acted to protect the last elk, growing their population to 140 by 1905. When the herd was encroaching on his own crops he captured some and moved them to other locations in California in the first efforts of conservation of the species. By 2016 their estimated numbers have expanded to 5,700 all derived from the remnant herd discovered by Henry Miller.
Seeing the herds at Point Reyes National Seashore in their natural habitat is a success story of restoring to the California coastal ecosystem it’s dominant native herbivore. They are a success story of the conservation of both a native species and the ecosystem they inhabit which is a primary purpose of the National Park Service. However, the success of their conservation now creates a need for management. As elk herds grow and disperse some herds will need to be reduced to bring them into balance with the ecosystem they inhabit and some herds will need an input of new genetics.
Management plans and conservation efforts are often at odds with one another. The State of California released a tule elk management plan late in 2017. Conservation groups are slamming the plan, accusing it of being short on science and weak in supporting elk recovery. They cite that the plan lacks basic information such as elk abundance and distribution – numbers vital to determine hunting quotas. They claim that the state fish and wildlife department developed the plan with funding, input and lobbying from hunting and agricultural interests but without input from experts on conservation, research, education or tourism. They believe that the plan supports management using hunting quotas rather than combining that with other management practices of hazing, fencing and relocation. The plan also includes a proposal to kill wolves if the population targets cited are not met. Scientists believe there is no research to support that the newly-returning wolves to California are a significant threat to elk populations and feel that this plan scapegoats the gray wolf.
The balance between management and conservation is delicate. I fervently wish that a plan will be implemented that will continue to allow the tule elk to repopulate its historical habitat and also allow apex predators such as the gray wolf to also reclaim their niche in the natural order of things.