EXCLUSIVE: Dry wildfire conditions pose risk to CA's native tule elk found in Point Reyes

Tule elk are native to California and Point Reyes is the only national park where they can be found.

Dan Noyes Image
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
EXCLUSIVE: Wildfire conditions pose risk to CA's Tule Elk
The same dry conditions that are driving wildfires across Northern California are putting a special California species, the Tule Elk, at risk.

POINT REYES, Calif. (KGO) -- The same dry conditions that are driving wildfires across Northern California are putting a special California species, the tule elk, at risk. I-Team reporter Dan Noyes has been digging into the issue on the Point Reyes National Seashore for an exclusive report.

Tule elk are native to California, and Point Reyes is the only national park where they can be found. In last evening's fog, we spotted a herd gathered around their waterhole, but it's bone dry. Those who enjoy watching the elk and advocate for them are very worried.

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Photographer Matt Polvorosa-Kline told us, "It just makes you upset and angry because our park service in my opinion could just do so much better."

In fact, most of the water sources for the elk at the Tomales Point reserve have dried up, or are very depleted. Polvorosa-Kline has spotted half a dozen dead elk in the past few weeks, and he's worried about a repeat of a drought from five years ago that killed more than half of the elk here.

Polvorosa-Kline took pictures of one heard and said, "This herd, I'm worried about 'em. Especially with the size of the herd and the young that I'm seeing."

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The National Park Service declined our request for an interview, but a spokesperson emailed, "There are a number of seeps and springs in the area that are frequented by the elk" and that their wildlife cameras have spotted elk using them. She also said the park has a contingency plan should the water sources completely dry up.

The Park Service points to a creek at McClures Beach as a source, but the advocates tell us the steep ravine can prove dangerous to the elk.

Polvorosa-Kline spotted vultures on one carcass. He believes the elk may have lost her footing and died in a fall.

Dan Noyes went to the scene and reported, "Just days after they found this tule elk, a female, her bones have been stripped clean."

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The hooves are there, the skull and other bones, but not much else. The Park Service says there's no sign the elk died in a fall, that "The animal bedded down in McClures Creek and expired for unknown reasons."

The advocates are also worried about embers from Marin's Woodward Fire reaching the elk reserve.

"It's possible with the way embers can float in the wind," said Jim Coda, Retired NPS Attorney. "If it did get to that place, and grass fires started, you know it, it could wipe out all the elk."

The fire is still miles away, but we saw firsthand yesterday how quickly the winds can change, and how quickly it can spread.

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Dan Noyes reported from the front lines, "I just stopped up at the Woodward Fire and turns out that things are getting a little bit hot here. Let me show you. Yeah, the fire's coming toward our vehicles, mine included, so I'm getting out of here."

And if a wildfire starts in the reserve, the elk can't escape - they're penned in by a cattle guard and an 8-foot-high fence that runs from Tomales Bay to the cliffs by the ocean. As we wrapped up the day, we found a herd just north of the fence, a massive bull elk on the south side calling out. He wandered off into the mist on his own. The advocates tell us the Park Service is more concerned about keeping the elk away from cattle ranchers, than doing what's best for this California native, and that is allowing them to roam free.

Coda told the I-Team, "They shouldn't be locked up in a place where there isn't a perennial stream that can provide them water in a safe sense."

We'll report back if the conditions at the reserve worsen.

For more information and how to donate to save the tule elk herd click here.

For a look at more stories and videos by the ABC7 News I-Team go here.