30 January 2008 - Point Reyes, California
Movement turned my eye down the gulch to the right. Out of the
coyote brush rose a burly bull elk in full battle regalia. It was almost February and he was now solitary, waiting only for his giant rack to fall. His gaze was fixed on mine, looking for a sign that would tell him if I was friend or foe. One bipedal step was all it took to send him on his way. The winter wind was coming off the coast, and it looked like it was fixing to storm. I continued my walk northward through coastal scrub high above the Pacific Ocean.
Meadowlarks flushed as I advanced up the slope. A harrier hawk
cleared the lip of a small crest just above me, snatching a sparrow
as its flock fled for cover. Over the next rise, I saw more elk, a herd this time. More than 20 strong, they trotted down the hill and
simultaneously stopped to have a look. They were all medium-sized
bulls, relegated to a bachelor herd.
Skirting around the flank of the hill and then ascending to the top,
I sent elk does and yearling bulls running in a tight herd like sheep,
glancing back, eyes popping out of their heads as if to say, “Which
one of us is he going to take?” I continued on large trails that the elk use to get down to the marshes on the bay below. There was a slight rain. Every few minutes the sun would break through bringing the first glimpses of spring to the ground. The hills had a scattered cover of bushy lupines and irises in the wetter spots of the deep loam soil. Not only were the elk abundant here, the bay was home to hundreds of waterfowl: buffleheads, scaup and goldeneyes. Further out were surf scoters and brant. Deep piles of shells at the water’s edge told me that this had been great human habitat too. Miwok Indians sustained themselves here for thousands of years.
Then I had to remind myself that only an hour before I had crossed a cattle guard that interrupted a 10-foot hog fence with a high wire up top. On the other side of the fence was one of those brown and white National Park Service signs that said “Tule Elk Reserve, Collection of Antlers Prohibited.” This was the boundary that separates the elk on the extreme tip of Tomales Point from the lion’s share of the Point Reyes National Seashore, still occupied by dairy cows and milking barns. My companion and I were seven months into our walk of the range of the redwood tree; which in places coincides with the historical range of the tule elk, piecing together what once was and what is today with a view toward the future.
Early accounts by frontiersmen described herds of tule elk like buffalo in the Great Plains. It is estimated that before the arrival of Europeans, over half a million tule elk ranged between the Central Valley to the coast. Human numbers were of a similar magnitude then. By the end of the Gold Rush, these elk were almost extinct. In 1874, cattle baron Henry Miller protected what he believed to be the only two remaining tule elk in existence, located on his land. He offered a $500 reward for information on people disturbing the elk, and the elk multiplied. Two decades later, he worked with the state and federal governments to translocate excess elk to free range on public lands. Two of these translocations were successful. Thus began the effort that saved the tule elk from following the path of the golden bear. Today there are 22 breeding herds of tule elk all over their original range, numbering in the thousands. Yet humans now outnumber the elk in this same habitat by well over 1,000 to 1.
In 1978, 10 tule elk were reintroduced in a 2,600-acre reserve here at Tomales Point. Today there are almost 600 – too many. Recently, 30 elk from Tomales Point were released to free range in the much larger Limantour Wilderness on the southern end of Point Reyes, but there are still too many. It would be easy to say, “Remove the dairy cows from Point Reyes and let the elk roam freely throughout.” But San Franciscans would likely be disappointed if they couldn’t find on the shelf their famous local cheese, yogurt and ice cream that they have enjoyed since the 1850s. There is probably a way to have both. Finding space for the tule elk that does not simply shunt our consumption demands farther from home should be the guiding principal in their reestablishment. The human footprint is heavy and increasing. Yet if we take a look at the tule elk today, seemingly impossible progress has been made in a century. It is not difficult to imagine a time when these seed populations will meld together. By that time, people will have learned how to reestablish ecological connectivity in this Pacific corridor and at the same time keep the landscape productive for humanity. This is the future.