Last week Point Reyes National Seashore used its email subscription list to send out a feeble and embarrassing attempt to defend themselves from the growing exposure of mismanaging the park. For this blog I'm only only going to focus on one of those points of contention because there is simply too much to cover (stay tuned for the rest). Point 4 in the email contested that the park service never admitted to hundreds of elk perishing of thirst during a major drought.
It's true. The Park Service did not directly say that the elk died of thirst. Instead they provided a strange and confusing combination of quotes that said just about everything except the exact words, âthe elk died of thirst.â
Here are a few example quotes from 2015 articles regarding the last die-off.
"We observed the ponds had gone dry. We are looking into options for carting water in, making sure there is water out there."
"It's reasonable to conclude that the drought conditions, the lack of water, the lack of available forage played a role in the the decline."
"There were no outward signs that something significant was happening that needed to be jumped on."
"The decline was drought related but the mechanism is not known."
Well, that is about as clear as the mud the elk were left trying to drink from. But hey, they are right, they did not ever actually say the elk died of thirst. Well done, park service!
While the park service plays games of exact wording what the public should be aware of is that while they may not have said certain words they repeatedly admitted to knowingly allowing wildlife to die while doing nothing about it.
Unfortunately, that continues today.
But while the park service hasn't change since the last die-off the public's awareness of the situation has. Previously, citizens and conservation groups who raised concern on this issue were pacified by the park by telling these people that the park was looking into a plan to bring in water. For example, the group WildCare, who at the time was very vocal about the issue, left the situation satisfied while offering this statement,
âThe park intends to provide supplemental water if needed. They are working on a plan. We are happy with that."
As we know now no action was taken and 50% of the herd perished. Those who are paying close attention also realize that nothing was ever going to happen. This time around people were paying more attention, myself included, and I began to see disturbing similarities between past and present. Many of the statements the Park Service was issuing over the summer and fall of 2020 seemed to be a regurgitation of the same statements as last time.
Before I reveal the upsetting details of present day, let's revisit details of the previous elk die off.
It should be noted that while the Park Service maintained that the elk in the reserve were not dying because of thirst during the drought the elk outside the reserve did not suffer a similar die-off. Nor did any of the cattle on the ranchers operating in the seashore (except, of course, the ones that were intentionally killed at slaughter or the baby male dairy calves that are disposed of shortly after birth).
Despite no animals dying outside the reserve during the drought this still leaves open the possibility that the elk in the reserve died of something other than thirst, such as malnutrition or some other deficiency due to being forced to live within a limited, enclosed area (Side note - poor forage quality is also a consequence of lack of water so really we are splitting hairs on that one). Still, to deny lack of water as a cause of death is awfully convenient considering the deaths happened when the water was all but gone and not at any other time.
Consider the numbers; 254 elk died, approximately 50% of the total herd. That's not a gradual shift in population. That's an extreme drop off in a relatively short period of time. And yet the park service was quoted as saying there were no outward signs of a problem that needed to be addressed while simultaneously claiming they were watching the situation closely. Iâm not sure itâs possible to monitor a situation closely while not noticing a 50% decline of an enclosed herd. Itâs not like these animals are ranging over a massive territory that canât be monitored, in fact thatâs part of the problem, the area is too small. Iâll add that myself and others I've worked with on this project have NEVER run into or spotted a ranger or a docent a single time that Iâve been out monitoring the elk.
While citizens and park staff debated whether the elk had enough water it seemed that most people were missing the bigger picture. Whether the elk were dying of malnutrition, mineral deficiencies, lack of forage, lack of water, or any other reason, the bottom line was that they were dying and the park was busier making excuses than looking into what exactly was wrong or how to help.
But was there ANY scenario in which the park would help?
On that note we must discuss the Tule elk management plan. If we go back to published statements made by the park service staff during the previous die-off in some interviews they stated that they were looking into options for bringing in water, but they also referenced the management plan, stating they were bound by the âhands-offâ policy of letting nature take its course. In other words, they would be interfering with natural processes if they helped the elk thus they were not allowed to help.
So the reality is that the park service staff were never going to help the elk regardless of what evidence was provided. It didnât matter if it was a copper deficiency, lack of forage, or lack of water, or whatever. The overarching policy was to not help the animals, so why the cat and mouse game? Why tell groups like Wildcard that they were looking into options for bringing in water? Fast forward to 2020, another record setting year of heat, drought conditions and fires. Animals across the state were suffering intensely, even the typically cool, foggy coast of Point Reyes couldn't escape the heat. When the ponds went dry and citizens began finding carcasses the public once again raised their concerns. And the Park Service once again pointed to any issue except the lack of water. â
But alas, thatâs not the point I wanted to make. My point is that if the elk management plan was preventing the park from helping the elk, then why the song and dance about what the actual cause of death was? Nature lovers were out chasing their tails trying to figure out how to convince the park service that the elk needed help when the reality is there was never any hope. Why not just say so? I even had a phone conversation with the park service about this; while we were discussing necropsy results, malnutrition, and other elk theories I said, "But if I understand correctly your elk management plan prevents you from helping the elk regardless, correct?" She said, "Exactly." So I said, "Why not cut to the chase and tell the public they have to deal with the fact that the park wasn't going to help so both parties could move on?" No answer. Well, I have my own theory. Saying, "It is our plan to allow the elk to die" doesn't exactly have a great PR ring to it, does it?
I guess thatâs why we once again started hearing about contingency plans to bring in water.
The park was receiving so much pressure from the public that the park created a page on its website dedicated to this issue hoping to alleviate concerns about the lack of water. It included a FAQ and a map showing available water sources within the elk reserve. Missing from that page or anywhere else on the website was a contingency plan.
During the same phone call mentioned above, the outreach coordinator for PRNS again stated that a contingency plan was in place. So I asked to see a copy of it at which point she changed her statement from the plan âbeing in placeâ to âworking on a planâ. Hmmm. That's interesting. Being in place and being in the works arenât the same, They arenât even similar. And I have, in writing, multiple email conversations the park service had with members of the public telling these people that a plan was already in place. Not being worked on, but already in place. Some of these conversations took place months before my phone call in which it was admitted the plan did not yet actually exist.
What do you call that if not public deception? Also, bear in mind that during the same conversation she had already agreed that no contingency plan (even if it did exist) would be acted on due to the constraints of the elk management plan.
Shortly after this the Park Service updated their water sources page to include a sentence regarding a contingency plan. That was the best we ever got. A one sentence plan. A sentence that came after the fact of being caught not having a plan. A plan stating the park would bring in water troughs IF they deemed it necessary. Thatâs not a plan, thatâs a sentence. A very vague sentence. No science. No specifics as to what exactly determines necessity. Just more lip service. Recall that a supposed contingency plan had been mentioned in interviews from 2015 so the deception of using a non existent plan goes back several years.
Speaking of science, there are some major flaws with this management plan. It seems rather unfair to speak of allowing natural processes to take place while animals are unnaturally confined to a relatively small area. Thatâs like a zoo with a policy that when the zoo runs out of food to give the animals that itâs OK to let the prisoners starve to death.
The park has referred to the elk exceeding their carry capacity in the reserve as a justification for letting the elk die, but how many people are aware the Tule elk management plan was written with full knowledge that the elk would routinely reach this carry capacity and suffer die-offs? Morally, I find this upsetting. These arenât animals that just magically disappear when carry capacity is reached, every one of them dies a slow, agonizing death. This isnât a survival of the fittest scenario, this is a case where animals donât even have a fighting chance to improve their situation but are instead doomed by human policy and a giant fence standing between themselves and hope. But morality aside, the management plan is badly flawed scientifically as well, perhaps spelling ultimate doom for this population thanks to human-caused genetic bottlenecking. Letâs look at the Tule elk timeline.
The hands-off policy may sound like a noble attempt to not interfere with nature to some, but contradicting this hands-off management policy I learned of a few examples of hands-on management. After interviewing Dr. Judd Howell, who worked on a study of these very elk for the park service, I learned that contraception was used as a way to keep this elk population down. That seems pretty hands on. In more recent history, the park published a statement that they attempted to rescue an elk from a mud hole in the reserve. That seems pretty hands on. By the way, âmud holeâ is an actual quote. Those are the words used by the Park Service to describe a location that they also had referred to as an adequate water source. I didnât even have to say this for them! Oops. This âmud holeâ, as the park called it, is marked on the map with a big, blue, refreshing-looking dot. â
Which brings us back to my effort to document these water sources. If the average person were to accept the map at face value, indeed it would appear that the reserve is full of plentiful water sources. That worked on quite a few people. Some even wrote to me asking me if Iâd seen the water map since I was âso stupid as to claim there might not be adequate waterâ. On the other hand the park service responded to some citizens who wrote in with concerns stating that the ponds shouldnât be considered an indicator of water availability in the park. To that statement I present a question. If you include the stock ponds on a map titled âavailable water sourcesâ are you not indicating to whomever looks at that map that the ponds ARE water sources, especially when they are marked in blue?â
Let me quickly tell you about some of those water sources, including seeps, springs, and ponds..
One of the first spots investigated was nothing but mud, algae, and elk corpses. Yes, a water source full of elk corpses. Another one makes as available was actually on the ranch side of the fence, of reach of the elk. The next spot was supposed to have flowing water, but instead we found a few puddles covered with some sort of orange film. And so it continued. Often we looked at each other wondering how desperate an animal would have to be to drink from water sources that were disgusting, yet the park service insisted the elk had âplenty of waterâ. Those are the actual words used by the park service so letâs look at what âplentyâ means. Dave Press stated that these were wild animals, adapted to the land that knew how to survive. Thatâs not the impression I got looking at two adult Tule elk rotting in a mud pit. Personally, I donât think thatâs the choice a âwell-adapted wild animal would make if there was plenty of water available elsewhere.
Furthermore, this is the same mud pit the park service attempted to rescue yet another elk from after local wildlife photographer, Matthew Polvorosa Kline and I had documented the other two corpses. Imagine the desperation level of an animal that tries to reach the center of a mud pit that already has two of its own kind rotting in it in the hopes there might still be some sort of moisture.
As we continued to document the water situation one day Matthew and I just stood staring at yet another handful of tiny, disgusting mud puddles where water was supposed to be âflowingâ We contemplated whether there was even enough water in all the puddles to fill a single bucket. âWho is this enough water for?â, said Matt. The two of us were already struggling under the heat of the sun and sympathized with mammals much larger than ourselves that had to deal with these conditions around the clock rather than just for a few hours like ourselves. I donât think there was enough water there for the two of us, much less hundreds of 500 pound elk. Of course if we were compelled to drink the water we would have gotten sick. This filth was something only an animal in dire need would drink from. What consequences came from drinking such foul water, even for wild animals? Certainly there had to be downsides of obtaining moisture this way rather than from a clean water source. The park service stated that a necropsy showed the elk they examined suffered from an unidentified systemic infection. Can a systemic infection not be water-borne? Isn't it highly likely? Was I over sympathizing with wildlife? Not according to Julie Phillips, a Tule elk biologist who tracked and studied these animals for 30 years. âIn all that time I donât recall seeing an elk ever drink from a mudâ.
What does the park service have to say about this, they have some scientific basis to contend with scientists such as Judd and Julie, right? In fact it was Judd Howell who suggested that I ask where the peer-reviewed papers were. Where was the science to back up their statements? Where were the studies? Without any of this the park is simply stating opinions. So I askedâ¦
"Plenty of Water"
In my phone conversation with Melanie Gunn she criticized the citizens who attempted to bring in water for the elk saying, âYou canât just do that, thereâs a lot of biology involved here.â I responded, âSpeaking of biology, can you tell me about some of the studies the park has conducted on this topic since the last drought? Or any current and ongoing studies of the elk?â She conceded she wasnât aware of any.
Nevertheless the park is comfortable telling the public the elk have "plenty of water". So via email I asked, âHow much water does an adult Tule elk require?â They didnât have an answer.
Let that sink in. This is the only National Park with Tule elk. These people have a rare, endemic species at their fingertips. If anyone should be an authority on this topic it should be the park service. But no. No data. Not even following the previous disastrous drought. At that time Dave Press had been quoted that the die-off was a good research opportunity and that they would have their ears to the ground more now. Instead, nothing. I would think one would have to know what plenty of water actually means before confidently telling the public there was plenty of water.
But cattle, thatâs a different story. We certainly know how much water they need, donât we? 30 gallons a day! Some estimates say up to 50 gallons a day in high heat conditions. So during this heat wave, while Tule elk died trying to find water in mud pits, on the other side of the fence the cattle were enjoying access to multiple ponds, all still full of water, the smallest of which was much larger than the only remaining, disgusting pond in the entire elk reserve. But not only that, troughs and other watering stations could be seen scattered across all the pastures, providing the cattle access to even more water. Adding insult to injury the park even allowed the ranchers to begin pumping water out of natural water sources such as Kehoe Creek and Abbottâs Lagoon. It was unbelievable to witness a park callously claim that the wildlife had plenty yet conditions were extreme enough that the ranchers were allowed to take even more water from that habitat for themselves.
I guess the park didnât have time to study the elk while they were busy writing permits that tried to give scientific backing to claims that adding another poop holding pond to a ranch wouldnât negatively affect the environment. â
A Few Last Details...
I feel I would be remiss not to mention a few more things. A citizen shared an ongoing conversation with the parkâs outreach coordinator, Melanie Gunn. The citizen had been watching my videos about the elk and wasnât convinced by parkâs assurance that the elk had water. Eventually Melanie told the citizen that park staff had just been out monitoring the water locations and had updated the water map accordingly. Except there was no new water map. The citizen tried to explain that it was the old map, but Melanie argued it wasnât, going so far as to say, âStaff were in the field last week confirming these water sources and the map was updated accordingly.â Thatâs pretty specific, to attach the action of updating a map along with the event of staff being in the field confirming the water sources. The reality was the map hadnât been updated and it wasnât until the citizen said to provide a copy of the new map along with the old one that Melanie conceded it was the same map. Sure, that could be chalked up to just a mistake, but it was a pretty specific statement. If the citizen hadnât known better wouldnât this have been just another example of pacifying the public.
Then there were the necropsies...or maybe there werenât. In September ABC Channel 7 was in the park investigating the Tule elk story when park ranger Christine Beekman stated that two necropsies had been performed showing that the elk had died of malnutrition, not dehydration. She also told this to Lisa Levinson of In Defense of Animals. However, when Dawn Rogers of Ranch Compassion asked for the necropsy results Dave Press told her that no necropsies had been done and that they donât generally do necropsies. Yet on the phone Melanie told me about another elk found later in September that they did perform a necropsy on with the help of California Fish and Wildlife. She went on to tell me they perform a necropsy every chance they get, but itâs difficult to get to the body in time. By my count there is one necropsy, the one Melanie told me about on the phone. The conclusion was that the elk suffered from malnutrition. What do you know?! The result was the same as the result that had been given for the other necropsies...you know, the ones that didnât exist. Further complicating the necropsy issue is another email exchange with a citizen asking about the necropsies. The request begins in November to which Melanie replies they are working on getting the information. Come December the citizen asks again and Melanie delays again, but she refers to the multiple necropsies. To date the citizen has not received the requested information, but I am left with new questions. How many necroposies were there total. And how did the park make a publicly declared determination of malnutrition if they are still gathering the information?
I suppose you could chalk all this up to mistakes...again.. Very, specific mistakes that sure seem to happen a lot with this park service.
#pointreyes #pointreyesnationalseashore #tuleelk #deception #droght #thirst
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