Volunteers Lug Water For Miles To Save Iconic California Elk Herd

A group of people on a beach

A robust herd of Tule elk have been thriving at Tomales Point on the Reyes National Seashore in California for over 40 years. But back to back years of ongoing drought and water shortages are putting the herd in jeopardy.

Tule elk are one of 4 sub-species of elk in North America and found only in California. At one point as many as 500,000 tule elk roamed the state but now it’s estimated that only about 4,000 of them remain in various pockets of habitat around the state.

Last year, 152 of the animals reportedly died at the Tomales Point elk reserve due to severe water shortages but now volunteers are taking matters into their own hands.

The elk inside of the reserve live in a 2,800-acre high fenced enclosure and are unable to get out and look for greener pastures and fresh water. The fence is to keep them from causing damage to nearby agricultural land, but at the same time the fence is preventing them from venturing out to find the food and water they need to survive, one of the volunteers explained.

“The last standing pond in the reserve is down to about 8 percent of its level and we see emaciated elk — I mean just skin and bone. 

The Park Service says this is a natural ‘population decline’ and we say it can’t be natural if the elk are in a fenced compound where they can’t escape. 

You can’t have it both ways. If you want to fence them in and create a zoo-like enclosure — the reserve — then you’ve got to bring in food and water.”

So volunteers have been bringing the water to them. Recently, about 70 volunteers gathered to lug roughly 100-gallons of water on a 6-mile round trip to fill a watering hole inside of the enclosure.

The water delivery is largely symbolic and attempt to highlight the water shortage in hopes that the National Park Service will address the issue. However, the park service contends the elk are suffering from a lack of quality forage as a result of the drought and not quality drinking water. Volunteers filling the watering hole by hand is not considered to be a viable long term solution.

Back in March the National Park Service released an official announcement conveying that message.

“Poor forage quality is the underlying cause of these elk population declines. Although the National Park Service (NPS) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)  believe the elk population declines are drought-related, there is no evidence that the population decline is due to dehydration or a lack of water. “

However, an updated message from June 11th seemed to change tunes.

“Point Reyes National Seashore is providing supplemental water to the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve in response to unprecedented drought conditions. Although some natural water sources continue to be available, these sources may dry if this year becomes the worst drought on record for Marin County as expected.

Marin County declared a drought emergency mid-May with the lowest recorded rainfall during the last 16 months in more than 140 years recorded by the Marin Municipal Water District.”

To address the issue of drought stricken wildlife, the Park Service installed three large water tanks elsewhere on the National Seashore but they inexplicably did not install any inside of the elk reserve.

That’s the reason volunteers have taken it upon themselves to load up a watering hole for the elk.

Only time will tell if the National Park Service will respond to this call for action by volunteers who are dedicating their own time and energy to help keep the elk herd alive.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock