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Science Behind the Scenery: Tule Elk

Point Reyes National Seashore

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[birds cawing]

[Natalie Gates] Tule elk were brought back to Point Reyes in 1978 when...ten animals—two males and eight females—were introduced to Tomales Point. Tomales Point is a peninsula that juts up into the ocean. On one side is the Pacific Ocean, on the other side is Tomales Bay. It is completely fenced in its southern border. So, it is a closed population of elk. These elk...although theoretically they could swim if they wanted to...they are pretty much, in practice, a fenced population. It is four square miles in area.

We do think from the historical records that tule elk did exist in the Point Reyes area and they were extirpated in the end of the 1800s. In, sort of, the late Gold Rush era, they were hunted to extinction here. In all of the state of California, probably fewer than a dozen remained. And all of the elk that you see here, and in the other 22 populations in California, all come from those animals. There are somewhere around 3700 elk left in California. And those are all the tule elk that are left in the world.

[crow cawing]

The park is really excited about the relocation of elk from Tomales Point to the Limantour area, because the Tomales Point herd is a, basically, an enclosed herd, the park was really interested in restoring what is a dominant native herbivore to the Wilderness ecosystem. And, in 1998, 45 elk were captured here in Tomales Point, trucked about ten miles away to the Limantour wilderness area where they were quarantined for six months, and then released. And they are now doing fine. There's 36 animals out there. And we hope there's a burgeoning population.

[crows cawing]

One of the best ways to monitor a wild population is to use radio telemetry collars. So, this is an example of one. This is a brand new one. They don't look this clean after they've been on an elk. This is the radio box and it emits a frequency that is particular to this collar and this elk. It goes around the...the neck of an elk. This is the antenna that emits the radio waves. They're often color-coded so that when we're just looking at an elk we can tell which animal that is. And this animal would be called red-blue-red.

This is a radio collar for an elk calf, obviously much smaller. There's the...what we call the "box," the radio, it emits its own frequency. Here's the antenna. The advantage of this collar is that it not only stretches—and you have to have a stretchy collar with a calf that's growing a pound every two days—but you also would like the collar not to stay on for life. This is...this would get much too tight, much too soon, and it would hurt the animal, so this is designed to fall off after six months to a year.

So, what we use this for is to follow an animal around and determine its life history. We want to learn how long it lives, where it inhabits, what kind of habitat it prefers. We'd like to find out, if it does die, what it dies of. All these things can really give us clues as to the health of a population. Um...in an adult elk, we'd really like to find out if she has calves. We want to find out how many babies she's has. That will help us predict what happens to a population. Is this a population that is on the upswing? Are we seeing a lot of calves? Are a lot of these elk cows successful and having offspring? Or is this a population that's either stable or perhaps declining? All of these things can give us clues as to what we might need to do, to manage.

[birds calling in the distance]

The way that we monitor these radio collars is with a receiver and an antenna. And researchers go out into the field, basically, and listen for radio collars with this equipment. They will tune it to the frequency that they're looking for, and then point this antenna in a 360-degree circle until they pick up the loudest signal. When they do pick up that signal, they know that the collar is somewhere in that direction.

We can either use something called triangulation, where we get a number of these fixes, and then we draw lines and figure out where the animal is on a map. Or, in a habitat like this, where we don't have a lot of trees or shrubbery, high shrubbery, we can actually get a good visual location on an animal.

[birds calling in the distance]

We've got a harem of...a group of females and calves. And, you've got one male, the bull. He's the animal with the antlers. And...the reason that we have this sort of a group, this setup, here is that we're very early on in the rut, or the reproductive season. And...he is a young male, um, interested in mating with any of the females that come into estrus. ...um... Usually at the height of the rut, you'll see a number of males close by, hanging out nearby, occasionally challenging him.

[the high-pitched bugle of a bull elk]

What you just heard there was a bugle or a whistle. Some researchers have studied it and the bulls that make the lowest pitch bugles are the most impressive and intimidating. And that the lower-pitched bugle comes from a large chest cavity. Therefore, the largest animals have the lowest pitch bugles and that's, you know, another signal that you can hear from miles away.

[crows cawing in the distance]

They eat...about three percent of their body weight every day.

[crows cawing in the distance]

There is a particular disease of elk at Point Reyes called Johne's Disease, or paratuberculosis, that would have happened at the time that the animals were introduced here. And that is a disease that is not commonly found in wild elk. And we have one of the only populations in which it has been documented.

[birds calling in the distance]

For 70 years, there were no elk in Marin County. And, in 1978, they were brought back and we now currently probably have 450 here.

[birds calling in the distance]

Description

The fourth part of the ten-part Science Behind the Scenery documentary featuring Wildlife Biologist Natalie Gates, D.V.M., talking about the effort by the National Park Service and the state of California to reintroduce tule elk to Point Reyes National Seashore.