Point Reyes Tule Elk Reserve

By Jessica Furtado, Alizé Joubert, Nicholas Stone

Our Journey began at 9:00 AM on Friday, October 2nd. Dr. Hall Cushman’s Ecology class and Dr. Caroline Christian’s Restoration Ecology class from Sonoma State University boarded eight vehicles to caravan toward the Tule elk reserve at Point Reyes. Hours later, we arrived with high spirits to progress our practical understanding of scientific method as it is used in field data collection. Before we could begin data collection though, we first had to understand the multitude of environmental and behavioral factors that might influence our study organism.

Where we stopped for a bathroom break before reaching our destination (Photo credit: Jessica Furtado)

Where we stopped for a bathroom break before reaching our destination (Photo credit: Jessica Furtado)

While still driving to our destination, we spotted our first tule elks (Cervus canadensis nannodes). Standing gracefully upon the hills, the buck elk raised its head and tootled (bugled) to the heavens. When we disembarked from our long voyage, Dr. Cushman gathered us all around for a lesson in the natural – and unnatural – history of tule elk.

Historically, Tule elk were present throughout California. However, due to hunting and habitat conversion, their numbers dramatically declined. In 1978 ten elk were reintroduced to Tomales Point. Since then their numbers have increased substantially, with natural fluctuations due to environmental stochasticity, such as prolonged drought. The elk reserve is 2,500 acres and is surrounded by a fence to keep cattle and elk on their allotted sides, but there is still conflict between environmentalists and ranchers about the reintroduced elk.

The fence surrounding one of the experimental plots. (Photo credit: Jessica Furtado)

The fence surrounding one of the experimental plots. (Photo credit: Jessica Furtado)

In 1998, an exclosure experiment was started to see if elk had any effect on the land. The experiment consists of twenty-four plots in three different habitat types; shrub-free grasslands, coyote bush grasslands, and bush lupine grasslands. Each plot is quite large at thirty-six meters by thirty-six meters. Dr. Cushman mentioned that if he had done the planning for this experiment, he would have made the plots smaller and had more of them so that there statistical power would be higher. There are many different research projects being done on the property by graduate students. SSU graduate student Cody Ender is seeing the effect elk have on velvet grass abundance, frequency and characteristics, while SSU graduate student Eric Cecil is looking to see if elk are affecting the arthropod community.

After we had lunch, Dr. Cushman called everyone over so he could give us directions for our assignment. We would have to collect data in the field and put the data together on one graph to see if there was a correlation between dung frequency and percentage of shrub cover. This practice helped to introduce the classes to field data collection and working together in a big group.

We were split into four groups, two groups stationed below the trail and two groups stationed above the trail. The area below the trail had more open grassland while the area above the trail had more shrub cover. Each group was given a transect and a meter quadrat. Within each group, we were split again into two smaller groups, one would collect dung frequency data, the other would measure and record shrub cover.

Measuring 30 meters perpendicular to the trail, each group would use the quadrat to measure the amount of dung every 5 meters. We recorded the number of quadrats in which dung was present. We also measured the percentage of shrub cover by recording the length of any bush that intersected with our transect. After each transect was done, two students would grab the ends of the transect and move about four paces west. This was repeated five times.

Once every group was finished, all the data collectors came together to put their data on a single graph. Once the graph was finished, it was concluded that there was no correlation between the percentage of shrub cover and the frequency of dung.

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The fence that separates the elk reserve from cattle ranches (Photo credit: Jessica Furtado)

When we finished our data analysis and when the day’s discussion was at an end, our group meandered back to the automobile fleet and we set off away, back to SSU. On our way out, we were able to observe the drastic change between the elk preserve and the pasture lands.

Overall, this field trip was very interactive and engaging, showing the class field techniques used to gather data as well as the proper tools used for field research. Working together also helped us to understand that a group can accomplish more much quicker than a few individuals. The history of the Tule elk can assist Environmental Studies and Planning students in understanding the restoration of large vertebrate animals as well.

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