A Brief History of Tule Elk on the Point Reyes Peninsula

By Charles Post

Tule elk, a modern totem of wilderness, have long played a role in the ecological-societal interface of California. The historical relevance of the tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes), a subspecies of elk found only in California, dawned on the fateful summer day of 1576 when Sir Francis Drake and his weathered crew landed at what is now Point Reyes – that arc of land that juts well into the rich, cold waters of the North Pacific – and first caught a glimpse of this stoic, and remarkably abundant grazer, as described in a journal entry: “The inland we found to be far different from the shoare, a goodly country and fruitful soil, stored with many blessings fit for the use of man: infinite was the company of very large and fat Deer (tule elk), which we saw by thousands as we supposed in herd” (1). The notion that these wild and fertile lands were fit for the righteous and pre-ordained use of man set a tone that proved to propagate cascading deleterious effects on the ecosystems of North America.

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and the preceding flood of people fixated on the prospect of prosperity marked the start of the end for tule elk. The years of ensuing optimistic hysteria, and unprecedented growth were a time of uncertainly for the tule elk and the vast sea of grasslands they long inhabited. With the dramatic growth and insatiable appetite for land and game, the heavy hand of man quickly deteriorated the tule elk’s resiliency, setting the stage for a century of precipitous population declines, followed by years of conservation, habitat restoration and episodic reintroductions in an attempt to salvage a species nearly lost. After the years of neglect and shortsightedness that almost resulted in another human propagated extinction, tule elk are making a comeback. Yes, there is a happy ending here, but it’s prudent to contextualize this change of fortune, and consider the evolutionary, environmental and natural history that has shaped and molded the way we coexist with tule elk, North America’s smallest elk and rarest elk species.
When talking about an animal’s taxonomic classification, we can’t forget Carl Linnaeus. Surely, everyone remembers Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, the man who crafted the foundation of biological naming and binomial nomenclature, right? Well, just as a refresher, based on the Linnaean model of classification, plants and animals are generally grouped into kingdom, phylum, classes, order, family, genus and species. This taxonomic classification system is intended to contextualize an organism’s relatedness relative to a near or distant relative. Tule elk are certainly in the Animalia kingdom, but more specifically are members of the family Cervidae and genus Cervus. The family Cervidae is comprised of a group of grazing animals that first appeared in Eurasia between the Miocene and beginning of the Pliocene period between 23 and 5.3 million years ago. While, the genus Cervu, describes deer that originated from the Asian continent roughly 10,000 years ago, who eventually outgrew their natal habitat, and subsequently traveled across Beringia, a land bridge that connected the North American and Asian continents, facilitating widespread Southern migrations to California and beyond (1). Over the course of time, evolution and adaptation eventually shaped and drove speciation, resulting in three distinct species of elk left to occupy present day California: nelsoni, roosevelti and nannodes (1).
The nelsoni, or Rocky Mountain elk, had a sub-population whose range extended West from the Mount Shasta region to the coastal ranges of Northern California and Southern Oregon. Two specimens, excavated in Shasta County and Siskiyou County and dated to the Pleistocene period, an epoch that occurred between 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, support the apparent deviation of the nelsoni from their home range in the Rocky Mountains (1). These populations of elk that dominated the moist, redwood and fog laden coastal mountains of northern California came to form the roosevelti, or Roosevelt elk, while more southern elk populations well adapted to the dry Central Valley became known as the nannodes, or tule elk, whose statewide population is believed to have neared 500,000 individuals at one time (1).

But at the very moment when John Sutter first gazed upon those luminous, golden nuggets in the American River, the future of tule elk would change forever. By 1849 news of the Gold Rush was plastered across every newspaper from Taos to Louisville and St. Paul to Boston. Seemingly overnight San Francisco became a boomtown with a population that grew from roughly 1,000 residents to upwards of 25,000 residents by 1850. 49ers, as they were to be known, were heading west in search of fortune beyond their wildest dreams.

Yet, with many mouths to feed came a precipitous demand for sustenance, and fortunately for those marching westward, by 1849 California was still a wild, largely untapped resource as illustrated by an excerpt from a hunter’s journal, “the herds of grazing animals in the Central Valley rivaled those of bison of the great-plains or the antelope of South Africa” (3). It wasn’t long before these resources were discovered and exploited at an alarming rate. Hunting and trapping parties, such as those lead by the Hudson Bay Company, recorded detailed accounts of these hunts. The journal of John Work noted that a single hunting party took 568 elk, 165 deer, 25 bear and 98 antelope from California over a nine-month period (1). As if to compound the increasingly bleak fate for California’s wildlife during the years that followed the gold rush, new urban hubs were sprouting up like summer poppies; Stockton and Sacramento soon joined the ranks as thriving hubs in the midst of California’s gold fever, both of which required manpower and an abundance of natural resources to grow.

By 1855, just over three hundred years following Sir Francis Drake’s historic account of an endless sea of tule elk grazing the Point Reyes headlands, common knowledge suggested that tule elk had been hunted to the point of extinction (1). Who’s to say if regret described the sentiments of anyone involved in their slaughter and blind harvest, but we can be sure that in 1874 a California rancher named Henry Miller had foresight, which proved enough to save tule elk from extinction. On that fateful day, he discovered a small herd of fewer than 30 tule elk in an isolated thicket on his Bakersfield, California ranch. With help from state and local agencies a conservation and reestablishment effort ensued. Between 1904 and 1934 transplant efforts were made in an effort to reestablish elk populations in California. By the 1970’s, extended efforts began to produce progressive success as elk numbers in California rebounded to nearly eight hundred individuals. Due to sustained efforts tule elk had made a significant comeback by the 1990s, with the statewide population nearing three thousand individuals. Today, twenty-two elk populations exist in California. The Elk Creek herd is the furthest North, inhabiting coastal rangelands of Mendocino County, and southern most population is the La Panza herd, which grazes the coastal rangelands of Southern San Louis Obispo County. The largest of these herds, and the only population found within a National Park unit, is located in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Today, after reintroduction in 1978, it is estimated that close to 600 tule elk roam freely in at least three distinct herds within the fruitful lands of Point Reyes National Seashore, the largest of which can be found in the Tomales Point Elk Preseve.

Evidently, tule elk are making a comeback thanks in large part to extensive management and reintroduction efforts. Time will tell whether these stoic grazers continue to flourish as environmental conditions change, and human development continues to encroach on remaining habitats. But for now, it is safe to say, tule elk, a symbol of wilderness and resilience, are alive and well in the Point Reyes National Seashore.
• McCullough, D. M. California University Publications in Zoology (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969), pp. 1-191.
• Maloney, A. M. Fur brigade to the Bonaventura; John Work’s California expedition, 1832-1833 (California Historical Society, San Francisco, California, 1945), pp. 112.
• Newberry, J.S. Report upon the mammals. Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. 1857, U.S. War Dept. Vol. 6, pt.4, No.2:35-72.