Tule elk are at the center of an epic conservation battle on Point Reyes National Seashore

After nearing extinction 150 years ago, the California elk species is once again facing challenges—this time from local agriculture

Photo: Shoshi Parks

The forecast promises rain but the skies that darken above Northern California’s Tomales Bay bring only rainbows, dancing elegantly over the trail. As I hike five miles toward the peninsula’s abrupt end at Tomales Point, tule elk lounge on the bluffs, their antlers glinting in the dappled light.

Two hundred years ago, the prairies and meadows of Point Reyes National Seashore were teeming with these shaggy ungulates, a subspecies of elk found only in California. Though three herds of tule elk live in the park today, only the captive one on this narrow rocky peninsula at Tomales Point resembles what once was. 

The two smaller herds live in freedom at Limantour and Drakes beaches, but no one knows for exactly how long. Despite being a national park site, Point Reyes is a key battleground for the future of conservation in California and at its center, the tule elk roam.

The impact of cows

The road to the Point Reyes Lighthouse is rough but the hills outside my car window, made green by winter rains, create smooth waves across the horizon. The landscape may look lush at 50 mph but there is little prairie junegrass and wild rye left here. The blanket of emerald vegetation is a blanket of weeds.

A rainbow above a hiking trail with the Pacific Ocean in the background.
A rainbow dances above the hiking trail to Tomales Point. | Photo: Shoshi Parks

What caused the degradation is no mystery. Point Reyes National Seashore is one of only a few national park units that has allowed historic ranches and dairies to continue to work within its bounds and, along with them, more than 5,000 cows trample the soil and smother the pastures with their manure. 

“The cows have basically replaced whole ecosystems,” says Laura Cunningham, California director of the Western Watersheds Project. “They’ve eliminated diverse native coastal prairies from 90 percent of the park.” The elk at Limantour and Drakes beaches can survive on what’s left, but they must compete with the cattle to do so.

I don’t pass many cars on the way to the lighthouse. It’s morning and the memories of yesterday’s stormy skies at Tomales Point are vanquished by the cheery sunlight. Deer frolic on the hillsides and three separate pairs of coyotes slip quietly along the fence lines as I make my way past G Ranch, F Ranch, E Ranch, and on through the alphabet to the headlands where just offshore, gray whales migrate south to warmer waters.

Elk relaxing on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Tule elk relax on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean. | Photo: Shoshi Parks

Expired leases

Point Reyes’ ranches and dairies date back to the 1850s when they were first established to provide butter and steak to the booming population of San Francisco, 40 miles to the south. In those early days, tule elk had all but disappeared from the peninsula. They once ranged from the southern Central Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in the east and up to Mount Shasta in the north, before they were hunted to near extinction for their meat, lard, and hides. Just one herd remained: A tiny group of 20 animals on a private ranch near Bakersfield.

Over the next century, conservationists worked to slowly rebuild tule elk populations, transplanting small herds to different public and private lands within the species’ original territory. In 1978, they were finally returned to Point Reyes. By then, the peninsula had been designated a national seashore, a process during which the National Park Service purchased the original ranch and dairy lands and leased them back to their previous owners under special use permits. 

In the original plans, the leases were set to expire between 1991 and 2005, according to Chance Cutrano, director of programs at the Resource Renewal Institute. But by the time they did, the Park Service was cash-strapped. Despite growing awareness of the environmental damage the cattle operations were wreaking on the peninsula, they granted new permits, turning their backs on the park’s ecological and natural resources and, arguably, on the institution’s mission to “preserve unimpaired … natural and cultural resources … for future generations.” To keep them from becoming a nuisance to the ranchers (and to better monitor their populations), the elk were held captive at Tomales Point.

Protecting the elk

Just beyond Ranch A, Point Reyes Lighthouse has stood for 150 years. I walk down the 313 precarious cliffside steps to the red-and-white tower, strain my eyes to see spouting whales off the coast, then head back up again. A few miles down the road, I reach Drakes Bay and the Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock. It’s the start of pupping season and the roaring, howling colony is throwing a party on the beach below. A volunteer points out a newborn elephant seal just days old—a 75-pound baby already venturing off shore to dip and dodge with its mother in the shallow water. 

After a $4.5 million cleanup, the beaches and waters of Drakes Bay have been restored to wilderness. It’s an example of what Point Reyes could be if ecological resources were given precedent over agricultural ones.

A new public planning process under debate at the national seashore is the first to explore this possibility. Six potential strategies have been proposed. They range from the rancher-friendly B and C plans, which call for additional agricultural activities and limiting or eliminating elk populations, to conservationist-backed plans D, E, and F, which reduce or eliminate ranching and/or dairy operations over time and allow elk populations to flourish throughout the park. That alone “would be instrumental in re-establishing the native ecology, the native grasses, and the native shrubs,” says Julie Phillips, tule elk biologist and co-founder of Nature Based Teaching

A view of Point Reyes National Seashore's coastline with the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Point Reyes National Seashore. | Photo: Shoshi Parks

The public is overwhelmingly in favor of the plans that protect the elk. A study conducted this spring by the Resource Renewal Institute showed that more than 90 percent of the 7,627 comments collected during the planning process oppose continued ranching on the seashore. It’s a good start, says Cutrano, but how things play out in the end is still up in the air. “Point Reyes is one of the most important ecological reserves in America and, on the other side of the issue, you do have groups who have a financial stake in the exploitation or continued use of those resources,” he says. Despite the challenges, Cutrano has hope that the outcome of the public planning process will allow for historical cultural preservation, but not at the expense of natural resources.

As for the tule elk, what’s good for them is good for the seashore, too. Simply allowing the herds to roam free can go a long way toward restoring the ecosystem, according to Phillips. “It’s incredible,” she says. “It just shows you what’s possible at Point Reyes.”