Tule elk, found only in California, gather in the early morning fog in Point Reyes National Seashore, which is also home to roughly 5,000 cattle. The National Park Service faces backlash from environmental groups that say its new management proposal favors ranching over wildlife.
In the story of the United States, the calamity that befell the buffalo at the hands of pioneer settlers in the mid- and late 1800s is well known: Tens of millions of the animals—lifeblood of Indigenous peoples on the Great Plains—were hunted almost to extinction.
Less well known is what was happening at the same time in California, the only home of the continent’s smallest elk—the tule elk—long a source of food and clothing for the Indigenous Coast Miwok people. Named for the tule reeds that once covered miles of streamside habitat—and distinctive for their shaggy neck ruffs, white rumps, big eyes, and loud “bugles” bulls make to show their availability during mating season—tule elk are estimated to have numbered half a million before the arrival of Europeans. By the 1870s, white colonists in California had hunted them down to no more than 10 animals.
It took more than a century of conservation efforts, including hunting restrictions and relocations, for tule elk (TOO-lee) to recover to a population of 6,000. Now 750 of them—among the largest populations in the state—are...