The Tule Elk

The Tule Elk is a subspecies of elk endemic to (found only in) California. By 1870, the species was thought to be extinct. However, by some accounts, fewer than 30 elk were discovered in a single herd near Bakersfield. Thanks to a conservation-minded rancher, the species was brought back from the brink of extinction.

Tule Elk were extirpated from Point Reyes peninsula and surrounding area by the 1850’s. A reintroduction program in 1978 resulted in eight females and two males transplanted to the north end of the peninsula, near Tomales Point. From this original herd, 28 animals were transplanted further south in the park, near Limantour Beach. Eventually, this herd split into two herds, with one herd moving into the Drake’s Beach area.

This Tule Elk calf, cow, and bull are part of the Drake’s Beach herd. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @475 mm, ISO 640, f/8, 1/1600. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

Today, nearly 600 elk roam Point Reyes National Seashore in 3 separate herds, all stemming from the transplanting of 10 animals into the park over 40 years ago. One herd in particular, the Drake’s Beach herd, is now causing problems for ranchers; the ranchers who have been in business inside the park boundaries well before the park was established. The growing elk herd is consuming forage the ranchers need for their dairy/beef herds.

Tule Elk cow nursing a calf on Historic D ranch near Drake’s Beach. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @560 mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/1600. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

The National Park Service recently released a draft document for public comment, that calls for the annual culling of the Drake’s Beach herd to stabilize numbers close to where they were at the end of 2018. This means that approximately 10-15 animals could be harvested annually, with the meat being donated to local charities. After the public comment period, the final strategy will be developed and implemented.

A Tule Elk bull crosses through the grasslands near South Beach. This animal is part of the Drake’s beach herd. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @375 mm, ISO 800, f/8, 1/1000. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

The Tule Elk in California are truly a conservation success story. Fewer than 30 animals discovered in 1874 have expanded to approximately 5,700 elk state-wide. A species that was once thought to be extinct is thriving. The bugling of a Tule Elk bull can once again be heard in places such as Point Reyes National Seashore.