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July 31, 1997 IJ archive photo of Tule elk out on Pierce Point in Point Reyes National Seashore. (Frankie Frost/Marin Independent Journal) Frankie Frost

Managing the tule elk at the Point Reyes National Seashore has become an increasing source of concern in West Marin as ranchers worry about the damage marauding herds are doing to their lands.

The topic was addressed this week at a meeting of the California-Pacific Section of the Society for Range Management held at the Red Barn near seashore headquarters.

The massive elk -- which can easily weigh 500 pounds -- are knocking down fences, eating grass and drinking water supplies intended for dairy cattle, ranchers have complained.

Local and national officials agree there is a problem and are now looking at ways to allow for both the native elk and ranchlands to thrive.

Now park officials said they expect funding next year to develop a new elk management plan as part of a larger look at the future of ranch operations in the Point Reyes National Seashore.

"We need a new elk management plan and we have secured funding to do that," said Dave Press, park wildlife biologist. "We have started looking more carefully at the situation and want to gain our own understanding."

The tule elk were reintroduced in 1978 to the park after the species almost went extinct. An existing management plan for the elk, developed in 1998, is out of date and doesn't provide a way to deal with the elk on the ranchlands, Press said. The new one will, but will take two to three years to develop.

In the interim, the park is taking steps to address the issue. Over the summer the park service began filling ponds near Drakes Beach Road to provide the elk with water so they don't go to ranch sources.

"We have seen a dramatic shift in the last six weeks, they are concentrating more around the ponds," Press said.

Point Reyes officials also have consulted with elk experts from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, have employed experimental fencing and are considering offering additional land for cattle grazing to the "C" Ranch, operated by the Spaletta family, which is most affected by the elk.

"There is a lot of labor that the rancher has to deploy to work around them, through them, over them," said Stacy Carlsen, the county's agricultural commissioner, who wants to see more done to help ranchers deal with elk. "The ranchers have to herd them away, they drink water and they graze on the pastures -- and they eat a lot."

Supervisor Steve Kinsey, whose district takes in West Marin, said the issue is real.

"The elk migrating into the pastoral zones is of serious concern and needs to be addressed," he said. "I want to work with the park service, the ranchers and the community to come up with a strategy that protects the agricultural interests that have long been established in the park, while recognizing the park's responsibility to act in environmentally responsible ways."

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has met with ranchers on the issue.

"The herds are flourishing more so than anyone thought they would," said Huffman, who is not opposed to experimenting with relocation. "We have to adaptively manage. We all want tule elk in the seashore, their return is a great story, but we can manage in a way that doesn't create impacts to what's left of ranching. They are both important values."

Tule elk herds on the Point Reyes Peninsula disappeared by 1860 after they were hunted to local extinction.

They were reintroduced in 1978 by the park and eventually were split into two herds. The larger herd of 420 is at Tomales Point, a 2,600-acre fenced reserve at the north end of the national seashore.

The other is a herd that began with about 20 animals that were transplanted from Tomales Point and now roam in the Limantour wilderness area of the seashore and above Drakes Beach. That herd has grown to about 75, and about 50 of those animals have migrated to areas where they have access to ranches near the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

The reintroduction of the free-ranging herd is an important step in ecological restoration in the park, helping maintain environmental balance among species, park officials have said.

"They provide the visitor with a sense of what wild California used to be like," said Press, noting Point Reyes is the only national park to have the elk. "It's very dramatic to see them out there with the ocean in the background."

Contact Mark Prado via email at mprado@marinij.com