The Hunt for Tule Elk

Posted from Glen Ellen, CA

The headlands near the beginning of our hike

The headlands

Ter and I were on a mission: hike along Tomales Point at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County in search of the once-endangered tule elk (pronounced toolee) at Tule Elk Reserve.

We learned about the elk from a ranger at Bear Valley Visitor Center, where we’d stopped for a quick orientation to the area. He explained that these elk, endemic to California and once numbering around 500,000, were nearly extinct by the mid-1800s because of unchecked hunting. As early settlers capitalized on the Point Reyes Peninsula’s cool, moist climate, the abundant grasslands, and the long growing season by building large dairy farms, they further decimated the elk population, displacing them for cattle.

The ranger said that by the early 1870s, fewer than 30 tule elk were left in a single herd, which a conservation-minded rancher found on his property near Bakersfield. Fortunately, the rancher had the foresight and means to safeguard this last group. Prior to his discovery, the common consensus was that the tule elk were extinct. After nearly a century’s absence, officials reintroduced tule elk to the wilderness of Tomales Point. All of the present-day tule elk in Tule Elk Reserve and elsewhere in California are descendants of that dwindling herd from the 1870s. They now number in the low thousands.

When I commented on the obvious inbreeding, the ranger laughed and jokingly replied, “I can’t think about tule elk without thinking about their genetic overlap, and an image of buck teeth, wearing overalls and playing banjos comes to mind.”

Not the mental image I want to conjure.

Dairy farm

Dairy farm

We drove north on the peninsula along a narrow, winding, ever-upward road for 45 minutes, past the still-operating dairy farms to the abandoned Pierce Point Ranch and the beginning of the Tule Elk Reserve.

Like the sign at the entrance to Sonoma Valley Regional Park, the sign at this trailhead cautioned hikers about the presence of mountain lions, pointing out that they’re nocturnal and secretive, and they avoid humans. Some half of California is a mountain lion habitat.

Our hike was through a remote, treeless, windswept coastal plain, high above the water of calm Tomales Bay to our right, and the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean to our left. Except for the occasional fellow hiker, squawking birds, and the mounds of droppings all along the dirt trail attesting to the presence of wild animals (Mountain lion? Tule elk?), we were alone.

Tule elks

Tule elk

After more than an hour, we rounded a bend and there they were – a dozen or so tule elk scattered around a watering hole, grazing, lounging, drinking, and seemingly oblivious to us as we kept a respectful distance. They were magnificent. Beige coats with dark brown manes surrounding their necks. Barrel-chested, but moving with a strong, quiet grace. Mature males sporting six-point antlers.

Mission accomplished.

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