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Tule elk put on dramatic displays in Point Reyes National Seashore

It’s tempting to cast into human terms what goes on this time of year on the windswept bluffs of Tomales Point.

There’s a lot of posing, teasing and strutting about that’s somehow reminiscent of individuals we’ve all known.

But when the bugling starts, and the male tule elk begin calling to one another with a sound that blends a horse’s neigh with the scream of an eagle and the guttural roar of an elephant seal, all thoughts return to the mysteries of the animal world.

Amid the coastal scrub and folded landscape of Tomales Point, a narrow promontory between Tomales Bay and the great Pacific, a once dominant species nearly hunted to extinction a century and a half ago continues to reproduce and flourish within the safety of the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County.

If the scenery weren’t lure enough, visitors willing to hike a bit can observe part of the miracle in the making right from the Tomales Point Trail, passing groups of elk in creek draws and on hillsides, or simply hearing a male’s weird, high-pitched warning above the sound of the wind and waves crashing below the land.

The mating season offers a fascinating glimpse into rituals both obvious and arcane, fulfilling Darwin’s precepts about survival of the fittest but at the expense of egalitarian principles.

A whole lot of elk get left out, including the vast majority of the bulls, for whom the rut means months of looking on while a handful of alpha males monopolize the action.

The cows, too, are at the mercy of the bulls who control their harem. Wander too far, and their master comes shrieking after them, herding them back toward the group.

About 509 tule elk of both genders, including 70 new calves born last year, reside at the Point Reyes seashore, according to 2016 estimates. They are distributed between the elk preserve on Tomales Point, where two bulls and six cows were first reintroduced in 1978, and three or four sites farther south, near Limantaur and Drakes beaches, where free-ranging herds have been established more recently.

Tule elk are a tightly herding animal, and the females and their offspring stay together in groups of several dozen throughout the year, until about August, when the females begin coming into season and the park becomes a pheromone-charged environment, wildlife biologist Dave Press said.

Burly bulls, with great branched antlers able to fight off rival males, quickly move in and begin to cleave off groups of females as their harems, typically involving about two dozen cows, some of which will bear their calves the next year and help sustain the herd. Male calves 2 or 3 years old may be allowed to stay until their spikes are replaced by antlers, at which point they’ll be driven off to hang out with the bachelor herd, Press said.

There is also some fluidity throughout the season: a sneaky subordinate may be able to peel off one or more of the females for himself.

But if an alpha male loses his harem to another bull, it’s often just because maintaining dominance “is a ton of work, so they get burnt out,” Press said. “Sometimes they lose their dominance in the course of a season because they’ve basically used all their energy and they get pushed out by someone who’s got more reserves.”

The alpha males keep close watch on the cows and on any bachelors that may venture near. Relaxing in the grass one moment, as if without a care, they can be on their feet in a moment, warning away trespassers who might try to steal a female or who even appear to be contemplating a challenge.

Human visitors who luck out with their timing may observe bulls rake their antlers through the coastal grasses and thrash around to demonstrate their dominance — creating in the process a sort of loose and floppy crown of grass that tends to fall across their eyes.

A rarer show still plays out when a subordinate takes on an alpha male, resulting in a clash of antlers and bursts of forceful shoving where each tries to prove himself most powerful.

But most often, an approaching male will sort of size up the dominant male and decide it’s safest “to just back off,” Press said.

“I find that they do try to avoid those direct confrontations as much as they can,” he said. “Certainly on occasion, you do see a couple of well-matched bulls locking antlers, but it’s rare.”

Although they’re scattered elsewhere in the seashore area, the best place to view the rut is from the northernmost tip of Tomales Point, beginning at the Tomales Point Trailhead at Pierce Point Ranch, located up Sir Francis Drake Boulevard past Inverness and about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Santa Rosa.

One can often see or hear the elk right at the trailhead, though a mile-long walk to Windy Gap sometimes offers superior and more scenic views. A pond about 3 miles up the trail typically draws a large number, as well.

Phyllis Klein, 68, and Len Weisberg, 70, both of Palo Alto, looked over the pond one day last month, enthusiastically observing a bull and 14 cows grazing on one side of the pond. They were watched closely by four other males nearby, while, on the pond’s far side, a group of more than a dozen bulls lay in the grass, their impressive antler racks almost blending in with the low, scrubby plantlife.

One passerby suggested the bulls looked like they were “having a pity party for not having any girls.”

Klein said she and Weisberg had been at the park during the elk rut before and had not planned to revisit the seashore on this particular trip, until they heard someone talking about it at dinner the night before and decided to change their itinerary.

“We’ve seen them before,” Klein said, “but it’s not, like, ‘Once you’ve seen them…’

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Visiting the tule elk

Tule elk docents will be available on weekends through October to help visitors view the rutting elk on Tomales Point, stationed at the Tomales Point Trailhead from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and/or about a mile north along the trail at a point called Windy Gap between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The docents will have spotting scopes and binoculars available to help visitors view the elk.

Where: The trailhead is located at Pierce Point Ranch, near the northern tip of Tomales Point, accessed via Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, about 1 1/2 hours by car from Santa Rosa.

The national seashore advises viewers to follow a few safety rules, including:

-Keep a good distance and move farther away if the elk appear alert or nervous. Use binoculars or scopes.

-Stay on the trail. Do not come between a cow and calf, a bull and cows or two bulls challenging one another.

-Watch quietly, whisper and move slowly.

-Do not feed the elk.

-Pets are prohibited in the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve.