What’s Wrong with this Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore?

Photo of an elk showing signs of Johne's Disease.

This elk’s ribs are sticking out and it has diarrhea.

This elk looks like it is starving, yet it has plenty of food in the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point.  I’m not an expert, but the most likely cause of this animal’s condition is Johne’s Disease.

Johne’s (pronounced “Yo-nees”) Disease is a bacterial disease that affects the small intestine of ruminants (cows, sheep, elk, deer etc).  It is caused by Mycobacterium  avium paratuberculosis (“MAP”).  It embeds itself in the wall of the lower part of the small intestine.  As an immune response, the walls of the small intestine become thicker.  This thickening prevents the absorption of nutrients.  As a result, the animal loses weight and dies.   It is believed to have started in Europe and it is now a world-wide problem.  Sixty-eight percent of dairy herds in the United States are infected with MAP.  MAP leaves or exits infected animals in feces and milk.  It can survive outside a host animal for up to a year.  Even if the mother is not infected, her young can acquire it from her teats if they are contaminated with MAP-carrying manure.  Once it is in a herd it is virtually impossible to remove.  The above info was obtained from the following sites:  site1, site2.

NPS is aware that the herd is infected with Johne’s disease.  I don’t know to what extent research has been done on the herd.  Some of the questions I have wondered about are:   How many of the elk that die each year at Point Reyes die from MAP?  The herd at the Tule Elk Preserve does not seem to be growing.  What role does MAP play in that?  The Limantour herd came from the Preserve.  Is the mortality rate the same for both herds?  How many dairy ranches at Point Reyes have MAP-infected herds?  Is MAP increasing at Point Reyes?

Photo of elk with signs of Johne's Disease.

Rear view of the same elk in the first photo. 


About Jim Coda

I am a nature photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I specialize in photos of birds, mammals, and landscapes.
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8 Responses to What’s Wrong with this Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore?

  1. Nichola Spaletta says:

    Hi Jim,
    1978- first Tule elk herd of 10 arrived at PRNS, they were kept in a temporary enclosure (McDonald had not yet left Pierce Ranch) & fed by PRNS staff. Several died in the second year and bulls developed malformed antlers- blamed on a mycobacterial disease & nutritional deficiencies.
    Ask the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife for the tests. I only know that the elk in the pen died of Johne’s before released.
    Law S. 476-Public Law 87-657, approved 9/13/62 protects Historical Ranching in the Pastoral Zone intended for cattle grazing at Point Reyes National Seashore, elk are not a part of this law and or not a part of the rancher’s leases. The elk left their intended 18,000 acres of designated wilderness at Limantour and are on the pastoral zone. The Park staff state that they are writing up a new Ranch Management Plan for the elk. Rancher’s leases and organic certification are at risk by these roaming elk that do not belong on the historic working ranches. Ranches that are what made this a Seashore in the first place.
    We have 9 places in our area that have wildlife friendly areas for crossing.
    We would like to continue ranching in the seashore. Our family is five generations. We only want the elk placed back at Limantour safely and humanely for the park to manage.
    I hope you understand our concerns about these majestic elk. As I said there is a place for both of us.
    As you asked, I will stop responding to you.
    Spaletta Family- C Ranch

    • Jim Coda says:

      Hi Nichola,

      OK, I’ll re-open the comments, but this will be the end. We’ve already written far more than was in the original blog about Johne’s that was posted over 2.5 years ago and no one is ever going to read what we are discussing. I prefer to keep comments current as I think most bloggers do.

      As to whether the elk had Johne’s when they arrived at Pierce Point, I’ll see what I can find out. I remain curious as to that as well as the status of Johne’s throughout the park. I’ll also be interested to see what the Park Service says about it in its proposed ranch management plan.

      With regard to PL 87-657 and ranching, it only says (a) ranches over 500 acres shall not be acquired by condemnation and (b) when acquiring access roads the Park Service will give due consideration to existing ranching uses. There is no mention of any other protection of ranching. You’re right, elk aren’t mentioned in that law. However, Congress passed a Joint Resolution in 1976 to provide for the re-introduction of tule elk into Point Reyes National Seashore and other federal lands in California. PL 94-389. So, the elk are there because Congress wanted them there. With respect to leases, there’s no requirement for the Park Service to say something regarding elk in the leases any more than there is a requirement to say something regarding other wildlife. However, maybe the Park Service will say something in its next leases given the recent elk controversy. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I would be very surprised, given the Park Service’s statutory directives, that the Park Service will round up the elk on the ranches and put them in a fenced cage in the wilderness.

      I don’t know anything abut the 9 wildlife-friendly fences you mention (except the two I know about on Drakes Beach Road), but I think the Park Service is obligated to require all fencing to be wildlife-friendly throughout the park.

      I don’t see ranching and elk as mutually exclusive. As I mentioned in my previous reply, ranchers and elk co-exist throughout the west.

      When I said I was closing comments in my last reply, I only meant that as to this old Johne’s blog. Feel free to comment on my current fencing blog or any future blogs.

  2. Nichola Spaletta says:

    Hi Jim,
    You need to contact Mr. Mervin McDonald of N Ranch. He was the prior owner of Pierce Point Ranch and saw the diseased elk in the enclosure when the first elk arrived at Point Reyes National Seashore at Pierce Point. The elk died in the pen before being released.

    As for the free range elk. The NPS state that they will manage these elk in the Limantour wilderness area according to the “1998 Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment”. If elk go out of their boundary into people’s private property, elk will be placed back according to this plan.

    Ranchers only want a fence along the Wilderness/Pastoral Zone boundary to keep elk off rented/leased pastures in the Pastoral Zone, not an enclosure at Limantour. In the last 14 years, ranchers have never seen elk swim back and forth across the Estero, nor Tomales Bay. Have you?

    Tule elk like grassy marshy areas and are grazers. They are not like the Rocky Mountain Elk, though related. The ranchers at PRNS have grazing standards that they must follow to remain certified organic, 120 days grazing on pasture and 30% of dry matter intake by their cattle a year off pasture. Ranchers must also follow their lease with PRNS by leaving 1200 lbs. of residual dry matter an acre prior to rains each year. Maintaining certification in organic is getting harder to do when the elk are producing at 12% a year and not managed on the ranchers’ land. Ranchers have to buy more hay and grain to supplement the cattle if elk graze on their ranches.

    Wildlife friendly fences are in the PRNS, and the elk do not always use them. Especially when elk can travel up to 4 ranches in a day with 50-80 in one herd.

    The elk do not belong on the pastoral zone intended for grazing by law, nor is elk a part of the working ranches’ leases. The Point Reyes National Seashore state that elk are affecting the rancher’s and that is why a new Ranch Comprehensive Plan is in the works regarding elk management. The Historic working ranches in the Seashore are many sizes with different topography. Some of the ranches are smaller or larger than others with more or less water. It is hard for them to feed and water these large numbers of elk.

    The elk need to be kept on their 18,000 acres designated for them. There is a place for both elk and cattle at Point Reyes.

    Nichola Spaletta

    • Jim Coda says:

      HI Nichola,

      With respect to any elk that may have died at Pierce Point before they were released, I haven’t seen any report regarding what the elk died of. If one or more died, it could have been from other causes. I’d also like to know if the State tested the elk for Johne’s before it delivered the elk.

      The 1998 elk management plan doesn’t say that the Park Service will remove them from Park Service’s pastoral lands, only private lands.

      I’m not sure what the ranchers want in the way of a fence. I went to the fence elk out website and can’t find anything about type of fence or where to put it. I haven’t seen any elk swim across the Estero de Limantour, Drakes Estero or Tomales Bay, but then the amount of time I’ve sent watching for elk doing that is essentially zero. The Point Reyes Light quotes an historic source in saying “[t]he last elk was seen in Point Reyes around 1860, swimming across Tomales Bay before “before disappearing into the Sonoma wilds.'” Point Reyes Light, July 19, 2012. I have no doubt they could walk/swim across the esteros or Tomales Bay. Elk are known to be good swimmers as are all members of the deer family.

      I don’t know of any difference between rocky mountain elk and tule elk in terms of what they prefer to eat. If you put some rocky mountain elk in the pastoral zone they’d probably eat the same things the tule elk are eating. They’re both browsers and grazers. If I understand your position, it’s that your cows should get 100% of the forage that’s allowable (i.e., short of overgrazing) and the elk shouldn’t get any. You have to accept the idea that your cows are grazing in a national park and the Park Service has a statutory obligation to provide for the wildlife of the park. Removing elk, and possibly deer and other wildlife, from the pastoral zone is inconsistent with the Park Service’s statutory mandate.

      With respect to wildlife-friendly fences, you say they exist, but wildlife don’t always use them. There are only two that I know of and they are across the street from each other on Drakes Beach Road. They use them when they are in that area. Obviously, it would help to have more. If you are in favor of having more of them than the one that is on your side of Drakes Beach Road, please let the Park Service know that you are agreeable to more of them. That would cut down on broken fences and injured wildlife.

      I know of no law that says the pastoral zone is intended for cattle grazing and not for elk, deer or other wildlife. It’s actually more the reverse. The Park Service’s mission is to preserve and protect the natural resources of the parks, including the wildlife. The pastoral lands are roughly 25% of the park as I recall and those lands are as important to wildlife as the other 75% of the park. Ranching is only allowable to the extent it doesn’t conflict with the Park Service’s mission.

      Finally, Nichola, I’m going to shut down comments on this Johne’s blog. It’s from 2.5 years ago and we’ve gone way beyond Johne’s. I much prefer to hear from people regarding my current blog and photos. If you have any comments on that one, please feel feel to do so.

  3. Nichola Spaletta says:

    Hello Jim,
    Our organic dairy cattle are healthy at Point Reyes. Why don’t you talk to the ranchers and see what is going on? Sincerely, Nichola Spaletta

    • Jim Coda says:

      Hi Nichola. OK. You’re a rancher at Point Reyes, so I’ll take you up on your suggestion. What’s going on re Johne’s Disease at Point Reyes?

      • Nichola Spaletta says:

        Hi Jim,
        NPS is testing elk in the Drakes Beach area now. So far there is no positive results of Johne’s in the elk in this area, these elk were tested free before moving them to Limantour wilderness where they were to remain. Pierce Point Elk came in with this disease, so it is positive in that area. Ranchers are hoping to place elk in the Drakes Beach area back safely and humanely in their 18,000 acres of designated wilderness at Limantour. Ranchers can not support elk on their ranches nor continue to fix all the damage fences and contain their cattle daily due to the large number of elk. Stop by or call us for more information regarding ranching and elk.
        Nichola Spaletta-Point Reyes

      • Jim Coda says:

        Hi Nichola. Thanks for your comments. With respect to the elk at Pierce Point, I don’t recall seeing anything that clearly addressed whether those elk came in with the disease or contracted it at Pierce Point. One thing I’d like to know is whether the State tested them before delivering them to Pierce Point. If it did, it would seem safe to assume that the State wouldn’t have knowingly delivered elk with Johne’s disease. Assuming that that much is true, then the elk contracted it at Pierce Point.

        With respect to moving the elk that use the park’s pastoral zone as all or part of their habitat, I don’t think moving them to the 18,000 acre wilderness is going to work. If you capture them and move them to the wilderness, some, maybe all, will wind up right where they are now. Some could even go in new directions.

        I don’t think a fence at the wilderness would work either. To begin with, it would have to be a Pierce Point-type woven wire fence 8 or more feet in height to contain elk. The first option would be a straight-line fence along the north boundary of the wilderness. I don’t think that would work. The elk would just go around it and return to their home territory. Some may even head in new directions. I don’t think a fence around the 18,000 acre wilderness would work either. The idea of a fenced-in wilderness seems like an oxymoron. The don’t think the public would ever stand for it. There also may be legal issues under the Wilderness Act with building a fence just inside or outside a wilderness area. The woven wire would not only keep elk in, it would keep all kinds of wildlife either in or out of the wilderness. Part of the territory some animals use every day would be lost to them. Any migrations through that area would become impossible. The wilderness would change to a island, biologically. In essence, it would be like a zoo.

        As for ranches not being able to support the elk, I’m not convinced. The tule elk’s cousin, the rocky mountain elk, is common throughout the western states on both private lands and federal grazing lands. Those ranchers are surviving. The Park Service just needs to make sure there is enough food for elk and cattle. If there isn’t, then reductions of some kind need to be made. As for fences in the pastoral zone, they should be enclosure fences and the minimum necessary to enclose cattle. They shouldn’t be exclosure fences designed to be a barrier to deer, elk and other wildlife. If the fences are “wildlife-friendly,” there shouldn’t be any broken fences. If you haven’t seen my recent blog on the fencing at Point Reyes you should click here.

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