Studying Tule Elk at Point Reyes

By Jana Johnston and Brian Mcissac

Long Windy Drive to Tomales Bay


Driving to Tomales Point in Point Reyes, CA. Photo by J. Johnston


Map of Point Reyes National Seashore. Our class went to the Tule Elk Reserve at top left corner.

The weather could not have been better as we climbed into the vans and headed to Point Reyes, CA. Today’s field trip was a combination of Hall Cushman’s Ecology class and Caroline Christian and Wendy St. John’s Restoration  Ecology so we had quite the crowd. The real stars of the group were graduate students Eric and Caprice who are currently conducting research in this area and set up a little experiment for us to participate in. Today’s goal was to learn about the current research experiments being conducted at Tomales Point and to get some hands on experience gathering data.

History Lesson by Hall Cushman

Although he always has something interesting to say, Prof. Cushman had to compete for attention with the stunning view, herd of elk and breaching whales and dolphins in the distance. He along with Eric and Caprice gave us the low down of the 18 year


Professor Cushman pointing out enclosures. Photo by  J. Johnston.

(and counting) enclosure experiment taking place before our eyes. The native tule elk (cervus canadensis nannodes) was near extinction in the late 1800’s due to lack of habitat because of the booming ranching business. However, the species was reintroduced into this area in 1978 and the research experiment began 20 years later in 1998.

Research currently being conducted by Prof. Cushman and a team of graduate students is looking at the recovery of the landscape after decades of cattle grazing and the effect of the re-introduced tule elk population. This area has a long history and a continuing competition with cattle ranches which has had a huge effect on the landscape as you can see in the picture below.  Notice the extreme


Elk grazed (back half) vs cattle grazed (front half) landscape. Photo by J.Johnston.

difference between the elk and cattle habitats! You can see the change from a dry brown grassland to a green shrub dominated landscape as you drive through the fence.

Data Collection


Students measuring transects. Photo by J. Johnston.

After eating lunch on the sides of the cliff overlooking the ocean and the endless rocky shoreline to the north, we got down to business.  Split into
several groups, some of us were sent into the coyote brush (bacharris pilularis) and lupine (lupinus arboreous) dominated upland habitat while others stayed in the grassier lowland nearer to the cliffs.  We created a number of 60 x 15 ft. transect lines chosen randomly so as not to introduce bias into the data.  We then measured the total ground cover created by the lupinus and bacharris as well as the amount of elk droppings that could be found within our study plots.  Our data was then compiled and made into the chart that you can see Eric holding in the picture below.


Lab assistant Eric C. holding rough graph of field data. Photo by J. Johnston.


You can see, as Hall and company had expected, that the general trend in the area is that the more cover you find in a given area, the more elk scat there will be, indicating that the elk prefer to congregate in areas with cover.

And now we ask ourselves, how is this data useful to us?  What can we determine of the elk and their relationship with their environment?  Is this how it’s always been?  It is important to consider that Tomales Point is not a pristine ecosystem, it is a novel ecosystem that has been greatly affected by the exclusion of its native ungulate populations of tule elk and, most likely, the pronghorn (antilocapra Americana) as well as the eradication of coyotes (canis latrans), wolves (canis lupus) and the California grizzly bear (ursus arctos californicus), an extinct subspecies, and the Coast Miwok people who formerly managed this land.  Although the coyotes have recolonized from populations that spread from more northerly territories and predate the elk calves, the wolf was the main predator that kept the tule elk in check.  Populations were forced to move much more frequently and therefore the necessary disturbances they provide to plant communities was spread out over a different range of distance and time.  I think it is important for us to consider the relationships between all of these factors, from predator-prey interactions to controlled fire regimes, in order to better guide our understanding and decision making in regards to the healthy restoration and maintenance of such a complex environment.

Getting Home

I will end with this: If you ever ride in a van with Wendy, ask her to sing.  Seriously.  Grease, Disney, whatever you want, man. Elk bugling is nice, but they’ve got nothing on Wendy.


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