Point Reyes National Seashore and the tule elk: an historical background

As Point Reyes National Seashore begins a new process focused on comprehensive ranch planning, it is important for people to understand the basic background of why there are ranches within the Seashore, as well as how and where the elk were reintroduced. This article is based on the presentation I gave at the West Marin Chamber of Commerce’s elk forum last week, and the research comes from a book I am currently finishing about working landscapes at Point Reyes.


The Role of Agriculture at PRNS

Point Reyes was first studied by the National Park Service (NPS) as a potential park location in the 1930s; in 1959 it was formally proposed as a National Seashore, and was established in 1962. At that time, the peninsula supported fifteen active dairies and ten beef ranches, all privately owned and operated, and mostly by families with multi-generational connections to the landscape.


PRNS was originally intended to provide beach and recreation access close to an urban population, part of the NPS’s “Parks for the People” campaign of the early 1960s. Yet it was established with a 26,000-acre pastoral zone, stretching from A Ranch up to Pierce and back down to Home Ranch, intended to remain in private ownership; parcels larger than 500 acres could not be acquired by the NPS except with consent of the owners, as long as the land stayed in a natural state or agricultural use. At one of the hearings, Senator Bible stated that the legislation fostered “long-established ranching and dairying activities which. . . will not interfere with the public enjoyment” of Point Reyes; Senator Kuchel added that the pastoral zone would be “an equitable solution for preserving the local economy.”


For a variety of reasons, the pastoral zone ended up being acquired by the NPS after additional legislation passed in 1970; at the time, a compromise was reached where the ranchers agreed to support this change, as long as they could continue to operate within the Seashore. Most of the ranches were acquired by the NPS in 1972-73, most with 20-year Reservations of Use and Occupancy (RUOs) in exchange for discounted purchase prices. In 1978, Congress added language allowing agriculture to continue indefinitely; RUOs on agricultural properties could be converted to leases or special use permits, giving the historic ranching families “first right of refusal” for those leases. Most ranching reservations made this transition in the early 1990s.


During discussion of the 1970 legislation, Congress clearly directed continuing ranching as a permanent part of the Seashore, which it reaffirmed with its 1978 legislation. This was echoed in the 1980 General Management Plan for the park; “Although the establishment of the seashore and influences within the dairy industry have resulted in a reduction of agricultural activity at Point Reyes, Congress clearly intended that the ranches continue to operate.” However, the number of working ranches within the boundaries has dwindled significantly since the Seashore was established. Today there are only six dairies still in operation on the peninsula, and five beef cattle ranches.


Establishment of the Tomales Point Tule Elk Herd


Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) are a subspecies endemic to California, particularly the Central Valley, which had been reduced by market hunting nearly to extinction in the late 1800s, when a lone population of roughly ten individuals was discovered on a private cattle ranch near Bakersfield in the 1890s. This small population remnant was protected by the ranch owner, and increased to roughly 400 elk by 1914; later, some of the elk were relocated to other areas around the state.


By 1971, concern for this subspecies prompted the California Legislature to enact Senate Bill 722, sponsored by Peter Behr, to encourage expansion of the statewide population of tule elk to 2000, building from a population at that time of about 600 animals. According to PRNS’s Administrative History, “when discussions regarding the possibility of elk reintroduction to Point Reyes began, the biggest concern among both locals and park staff was the potential for disrupting peninsula dairy and grazing operations. State Fish and Game officials wanted the reintroduced elk to remain inside an enclosure, because of problems that free-ranging elk had created in the agricultural sector of the Central Valley.”


In 1976, Congress designated over 25,000 acres of PRNS as wilderness, and included Tomales Point, which was considered a prime location for establishing a transplanted tule elk herd. Long-time rancher Mervyn McDonald was forced to give up his lease at Pierce Point Ranch to make way for the new arrivals.


In 1978, the first herd of ten elk arrived at PRNS, and were eventually released onto Tomales Point behind a 10-foot-high elk fence to prevent elk and cattle from intermixing—both to prevent possible disease transmission, and to avoid management conflicts. Several elk died in their second year, but gradually the herd stabilized and started to grow. A population study conducted by graduate student Pete Gogan at UC Berkeley estimated the carrying capacity for Tomales Point was 140 individuals, and that “once the elk reached that level, the population would naturally stabilize.”


Yet after the drought of the late 1970s ended, the population began to soar at an exponential rate: by 1988, 93 individuals were recorded by the NPS; by 1994, the elk census showed 254 individuals, and in 1996, the population stood at 380.


In May 1997, PRNS staff gave a presentation at a Citizens Advisory Commission meeting, regarding the over-large size of the elk herd on Tomales Point; the Point Reyes Light reported, “About 100 calves were born last year,’ researcher Judd Howell told commissioners at a meeting in the Dance Palace. ‘That was a wake-up call. Suddenly we had a 33 percent increase in population.’” Superintendent Neubacher was quoted as saying, “I see no easy solutions to the management of the elk. . . But it’s important to create a long-term plan.”


The 1998 Elk Management Plan and Relocation of Elk to Limantour


This resulted in the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment. At this time, the Tomales Point herd size was approximately 550 individuals, and the statewide population of tule elk was 3,200 and growing. One of five objectives listed in the plan was to establish a free-ranging elk herd at Point Reyes by 2005.


Implementation did not take that long; in December 1998, a number of elk were relocated via helicopter from Tomales Point to a 25-acre fenced range just north of Coast Camp, to be quarantined and monitored for several months to ensure they were not carrying Johne’s disease. According to the Light, some residents expressed concern that the relocated elk would spread to private property on the east side of Inverness Ridge, and “several ranchers in the National Seashore said that they’d like park staff to fence in areas so that cattle would not mix with the elk.” In June 1999, Seashore staff released twenty-seven elk from their quarantine holding pen into the wilderness area near Limantour Estero. Each released adult animal wore a uniquely identifiable radio transmitter collar designed to allow tracking of locations and early detection of mortality.


The 1998 Elk Management Plan clearly states, “The Park Service has a responsibility to be a good neighbor to adjacent and nearby landowners. Anticipating the effects of tule elk management strategies on the property or perceptions of neighbors is an important consideration. Any depredations by elk on fences, crops, or other property would require mitigation actions to correct or avoid problems.” The Plan specifies that it “makes no effort” to hasten the closure of ranches within the Seashore, and while it considered an alternative (B) that would have allowed elk to free-range throughout the Seashore, that alternative was explicitly rejected.


Under the preferred Alternative A, the Limantour area was chosen for relocation due to its “large acreage in natural zoned with buffers from major highways, ranches, and lands outside the Seashore,” and clearly articulated that, “Tule elk will be allowed to roam outside the area as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.” It goes on to specify, “Damage to property could occur if elk move outside the Seashore onto private lands and consume crops or damage fences or other property. The Seashore will be ready to recapture or destroy problem animals should these situations arise, or establish partnerships with state and county agencies with the necessary skills and personnel to assist with the recapture. The Seashore should be prepared to provide funding for compensating property damage if necessary. It may be possible for the Seashore to modify parts of the habitat to help prevent such occurrences, or construct barriers to dispersal.”


The elk range identified in the 1998 Plan is restricted to the wilderness area around and south of Limantour, not extending into the Pastoral Zone. Any possible impacts of relocating elk that have wandered out of the elk range back to the wilderness area have already been analyzed (in the context of “neighboring” private property), and the resulting document was a Finding of No Significant Impact. Hence there should be no need for additional NEPA review for returning the elk to their originally intended range in the wilderness area near Limantour, as such actions have already been determined to cause no significant impacts.



A New Herd Established Near Drakes Beach


Yet by summer 2000, at least two elk had turned up across Drakes Estero on the former Horick (D) Ranch, which had just been decommissioned/lease terminated the previous year. They eventually grew into an established herd, which currently is affecting ranches in that area of the Seashore, as the elk cross into leased pastures, not only eating the cattle’s forage (which needed to be replaced with expensive hay), but also damaging fences and irrigation systems. Holes in the fencing left by the elk allow dairy cows to stray from their proper pastures, and potentially to be bred at the wrong time or by the wrong bull. Similarly, tule elk from the Limantour herd are regularly seen on ranches north of that area, causing similar problems.


The PRNS Annual Report for 2001 stated, “Since their release, the new herd [at Limantour] has been carefully monitored to ensure animals remain within Seashore boundaries, do not interfere with cattle ranches within the park and are not shedding the organism that causes Johne’s disease.” Yet the tule elk have been interfering with ranches for years now, with little response. Furthermore, like the original population at Tomales Point, the free-ranging herds at both Limantour and the Horick Ranch have continued to increase; by early 2014, the herd sizes were 71 and 76, respectively, and a 2010 study of their population dynamics estimates that, without intervention, both herds will likely increase to approximately 400 individuals by 2018.


The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association has requested that PRNS take action as soon as possible to relocate the tule elk away from the pastoral zone, or several ranches could be in danger of going out of business entirely from the impacts.

Published May 8, 2014


Dr. Laura A. Watt is an Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University, and is currently completing a book project on the history of management at PRNS, titled “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” to be published by the UC Press.


We Will, We Will Shock You!

627.1627.2In Tomales Bay we have an electric ray, Torpedo californica, whose specialty is what early scientists called animal electricity. If you find a Torpedo on the beach, don’t pick it up. Some of Torpedo’s muscles are electric organs that, like car batteries, hold an electrical charge. They’re primed to shock you. Electric fishes and eels use electricity to find prey in muddy water, to stun it before they eat it, and for defense

Small to large Torpedo rays look like this: (fig 1)

Most of the body looks like a flat, soft, flabby, rounded bluish, gray or black disc with both eyes on the topside and two wings. Torpedo’s snout is short. Its body has two dorsal fins, a short stout tail and a large tail fin. Torpedo lives on sandy bottoms, near rocky reefs, and in kelp beds to depths of 3 to 30 meters. Torpedo moves slowly as he’s the toughest guy around. He can discharge more than fifty volts at a pop. The wings of Torpedo contain layers of modified muscle cells stacked like batteries in a flashlight. Each cell, called an electrocyte or an electroplax, works like a very small battery. Stacks of these cells in Torpedo discharge together to make the electricity you can feel when you grasp him.


If an object like your hand is in the water and grasps the top and bottom of Torpedo your fingers complete the circuit, and current flows through your hand. The current is large enough to penetrate your skin and excite nerves and muscles in your hand. If the object is a hand or a small fish, and is large enough, it distorts the electric voltage around the body of Torpedo, so now Torpedo can sense your presence. He thinks you are prey, and ZAP.  Electric organs are useful for fishes living in murky water where vision is impaired. Eectric organs have evolved in several groups of fishes independently of each other.

Animal Electricity

In the mid-1780s, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani connected the nerves of a recently killed frog to a long metal wire and pointed the wire at the sky in a thunderstorm. With each lightning flash the frog’s legs twitched as if it were still alive. Galvani showed that intact muscle tissue responds to electricity. He reasoned the muscle twitch resembled the living frog’s movements, and that muscles and nerves use electricity to move the frog.


After touching exposed nerves to muscles or nerves to nerves, Galvani showed that the electricity came from the muscles and nerves themselves, because he got the same muscle contractions he got from lightening. He saw that no metals or external sources of electricity were needed for contractions.


Galvani inspired fellow Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, but he could not convince him. Volta in 1800 invented the first electrical battery—the voltaic pile. He soaked pieces of cardboard in brine then piled them up between disks of various metals. Volta was not convinced that the animal electricity came from the muscle tissue or nerve fibers themselves, but that animals reacted to electricity produced by two different metals used somewhere inside the frog that connected their nerves and muscles. Did Volta’s piles make him a biased observer? To see who was right and how Torpedo creates a battery and can shock you, we need to understand some basic electricity: charge separation, voltage, current and simple series circuits.

[Fig 2 ]

Charge separation and voltage


In nature, free electric charges of opposite sign, + and –, try to keep as close together as they can. Like an old couple, + and — move around holding on tightly to each other. Like an old couple, the closer the charges are to each other the more they hold on. Like an old couple, when you pull a pair apart they strain to stick together, but the further away one partner gets from the other, the less attraction each partner feels for the old charge left behind. How hard they pull on each other weakens with increased distance between them. Voltage measures the electrical force pulling separated charges together.


Voltage is strong if the charges are closely separated, but the voltage is weaker if the separated charges are held farther apart. Torpedo uses cellular energy from metabolism to separate ions. Potassium chloride (used as a salt substitute) breaks down to K+ and Cl—and table salt (what makes seawater salty) is Na+ and Cl—or sodium chloride. Each electrocyte cell keeps these ions separated by the thickness of the cell membrane. Torpedo uses both these salts in forming electrical potentials.

Stacked Electrocytes in series circuits form Torpedo’s batteries.

Remember those old Christmas tree lights: A string of bulbs with a plug for the wall socket? Do you also recall that when a single bulb went out, the whole line of bulbs went out? If you know how this string works, you know about series circuits. As an example, consider a very simple circuit consisting of four light bulbs and one battery.  (The battery and the wall socket are just sources of voltage or separated charges). If the wire joins the positive end of the battery to one bulb, to the next bulb, to the next bulb, to the next bulb, then back to the negative end of the battery, in one continuous loop, the bulbs are joined in a series circuit. Electricity passes along the string as current. Electrical current is like a river. It flows from a high point to a low point. With the four light bulbs connected in series, the same current runs through all of them, but the voltage drops across each bulb.  When the current re-enters the battery, the battery increases the voltage in the circuit from low to high. When one bulb goes out, the stream of current breaks, no current flows and all the bulbs go dark together.


From Bulbs to Batteries


Now do a thought experiment. We will make each light bulb in our series circuit a battery. Unlike a bulb that consumes electricity, so that each bulb next in the line receives less, if each bulb is a battery, each battery adds an additional voltage in the series. When bulbs are replaced by batteries, the voltage in the string can increase. Think of a flashlight where the batteries are in series. As you stack the batteries in the flashlight, one on top of another, the positive end of one battery contacts the negative end of the next in line. Each time you add a battery you get a brighter flashlight, because brightness is greater as the battery voltages add. Think of voltage as pressure that drives current. Now Torpedo uses batteries also to drive current through your hand.

Stacks of electrocytes are shocking.

Electrocytes are modified muscle cells that have lost their ability to contract.  Each electrocyte is a little battery, and each cell by itself produces a very small voltage. Electrocytes are stacked in piles, perhaps a thousand cells in each pile. The piles of cell batteries are oriented from top to bottom in the wing. Each Torpedo has five hundred to a thousand stacks of batteries lined up close together in each wing.  Five hundred to a thousand columns each, with about a thousand electrocyte cells stacked in each column, means that now when you grab TORPEDO….

Published June 27, 2014


West Marin Sheriff’s Logs

West Marin Sheriff’s Logs Monday June 23
Inverness Park 11:03 am A dump truck reported to have turned over on its side. One occupant was out of the truck on the side of the road.

Point Reyes Station 12:50 pm Employer called regarding an employee termination from earlier in the month.

Stinson Beach 9:31 pm Person reported that an unknown person came onto the property and knocked on the door. Extra patrol requested.

Woodacre 11:08 pm Person reports having asked a partying neighbor to keep things under control, and also that the party, that been going on since 2 pm, had just broken up. Caller now concerned that exiting partygoers were driving under the influence. Deputies only comment arriving at address was that it must have been a small party because there was no one around.

Tuesday June 24
Bolinas 12:01 Man who lives with his ex-wife reports they are having a problem. After walking dogs to a mutual friend’s house, he reports that she is accusing him of stealing her dogs. Advice given.

Bolinas 12:07 pm Reporting party states that they were away for weekend and found their house broken into, but the only thing missing was liquor.

Forest Knolls 6:43 pm Reporting party states that a white male in his 20’s was running towards them, wearing jean shorts and a green shirt. Subject appeared to be running from something and possibly on drugs. Deputies unable to locate runner.

Wednesday June 25
Forest Knolls 9:41am Woman needed a report for fraud that occurred when a fake insurance company withdrew funds from her account after she had given them her account number.

Woodacre 1:40 pm A woman stated that someone is using her identity to open an account. Report taken for fraud.

Woodacre 10:57 pm Reporting party states that there has been a dog in a neighboring house barking for 24 hours. Deputy arrived found two dogs and owners not at home.. Ample water was available for the hounds, and after feeding them, deputy escorted them to their dog houses and advised the to go to sleep. Dog whisperer reports that dogs were quiet as he left the property.

Thursday June 26
Bolinas 1:44 pm Reporting party states that they responded to the screaming of a 3 year old child. When they arrived at the child’s house, two men grabbed the child and took child inside. Men were drinking beers, and refused to bring child back outside to show reporting person that the child was okay. Report made

Forest Knolls 7:22 pm Woman reports she is getting harassing phone calls and texts from her boyfriend, who also is the baby’s father.

Friday June 27
Bolinas 1:28 A very large party that included screaming was reported to deputies. Deputies unable to locate screaming partygoers.
Tomales 10:53 Deputies came out to investigate a burglary but no one was home.

Tomales 1:25 pm Two boats collided. and one boat left the scene of the accident. Details of incident provided to deputies.

Saturday June 28
Tomales 10:32 A bicyclist was reported injured after he fell and was reportedly bleeding from his head.

Woodacre 10:37 A man called to report that his neighbor called his house and threatened him 30 minutes ago over an ongoing dispute over repairing a deck and removing tree debris.

Stinson Beach 2:25 pm Person states that his business partner has robbed him, Called back to report that his partner stole 27 marijuana plants from him and that his partner believed they were due to him from an unpaid debt. Responding person disagreed over nature and existence of debt. Civil matter, no crime to report.

Sunday June 29
Stinson Beach 1:06 am Woman called to report man on the who beach was ‘chanting/saying” while crying, “Help me.” She didn’t want to make contact with distraught individual herself but asked that deputies check on him. Deputies were unable to locate.

Woodacre 1:55 am Reporting party can hear man yelling but sees no one. Deputies contacted a woman in the area who reported she had been off her medication for the day. She seemed paranoid and possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She denied yelling or hearing any yelling but agreed to take her medications and go to sleep.
Inverness 10:23 am Reporting party stated that his neighbor is yelling weird things. Neighbor contacted and admitted he had ‘paranoid tendencies’ but stated that he had only been yelling because he received an email that made him angry.