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.”