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Too Much of a Good Thing in the Wilderness

The resurgence of a tule elk herd has raised questions about how best to care for and manage the animals.


In 1978, 10 tule elk were released at Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore. Isolated on good range behind a fence, the elk proceeded to do what elk do.

By 1988, there were 100 elk; by 1995, 250. The herd then nearly doubled again before leveling off--because of human intervention--to the 450 or so found in the park today.

"It has been a real success story," said John Dell'Osso, the park's public information officer. "We have a number of threatened and endangered species up here, and what's exciting about tule elk is that they are endemic to California and they were once on the brink of extinction."

In a state well-stocked with wild places, Tomales Point is a sublime setting. The slender peninsula, 90 minutes north of San Francisco, is almost entirely surrounded by water and often shrouded in fog. The elk have only added to the magic.

And, yet, as successful as the elk reintroduction has been, it has also raised intriguing--and sometimes troubling--questions about the care and feeding of native wildlife. In the case of tule elk, the dilemma is how to manage animals that need their privacy but prefer the same habitat as people, especially valley bottoms and other low-lying places.

"If you picture there used to be a half-million tule elk in the state, then ecologically speaking, they were the most important herbivores in the system," said Natalie Gates, a wildlife biologist at Point Reyes. "And then they were gone."

Like many wildlife stories in California, this one began when European settlers arrived in the state in the late 1700s. The smallest subspecies of elk found in the United States, the tule elk thrived in the marshy grasslands of Central California.

Despite their once great numbers, they were thought to have become extinct by the 1870s, as the result of over-hunting and habitat loss. Then, in 1876, a handful of elk were found on a ranch belonging to Henry Miller near Buttonwillow, west of Bakersfield. One story holds that there were just one male and female remaining.

Miller decided he was going to save the species. He put a bounty on any person who dared to harass the elk. The population began to climb slowly but steadily. Today, there are 3,700 to 3,800 tule elk in the state on 22 reserves, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

At Point Reyes, in 1978, the elk were put behind a fence on 2,600 acres on Tomales Point to keep them from interfering with dairy ranches within the park. Initially, it seemed to be plenty of space, but elk can reproduce prolifically. Females usually have one calf a year beginning at age 2, and six to 10 young in a lifetime.

When the population mushroomed in the 1990s, park officials became worried that too large a herd could destroy its range and leave it with nothing to eat. There were hard choices to be made, and park officials, with public approval, ultimately settled on a two-prong approach to controlling the herd.

First, they considered several options.

* Do nothing. If there was only so much grass to go around, the elk population would naturally shrink as fewer newborns survived. But could the park or its visitors sit by and idly watch mass starvation take place in a series of dry years? Probably not.

* Hunting a few elk. This was ruled out because hunting is not allowed in most national parks. Although it would be the cheapest and most effective method of population control, many thought it would set a bad precedent for other parks. Even some hunters had reservations, fearing that a high-profile hunt would result in terrible publicity for the sport.

* Moving some of the elk to another part of the state. But some of the animals had contracted a wasting disease called Johne's from cattle. Detecting Johne's is difficult, and officials worried that elk relocated elsewhere might infect healthy cattle and cause huge financial losses for ranchers.

* Using birth control to slow the growth of the herd. This proved to be possible and will continue to be a strategy used. Last year, 47 cows were given a contraceptive, injected by rifle-fired darts, that lasts for one mating season. Although some experts have argued that the practice is more humane than hunting, darting is expensive and can be hard on the elk.

"The darts are fired by rifle from 45 yards," said Gates, the park biologist. "It is a painful experience. We occasionally get broken bones, abscesses, mortalities." Gates said biologists suspect that the deaths have been few--they're hard to detect because they can occur days later--but that about 15% of the elk shot with darts develop abscesses.

Others believe that interfering in the birth cycle of an animal is unethical. "For me, seeing them use contraceptives takes away from them being a wild animal," said Mike Ford of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a group that preserves elk habitat.

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